Tri-City Dust Devils

Dust Devils feature deep, dominant pitching staff

PASCO -- There's not one universal secret to putting together a great pitching staff.

Throwing strikes is a terrific place to start, which is one reason why the Tri-City Dust Devils have been the top staff in the Northwest League this season.

Having fun while you're doing it certainly doesn't hurt.

"Baseball's a lot more fun when you win," Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio said. "Our pitching has been outstanding this year. They were throwing strikes in extended (spring training) and have continued to do it. The draft picks came in and worked hard to get up to speed."

The Dust Devils will bring perhaps the best collective group of pitchers they've had in 11 seasons into the NWL championship series against Vancouver.

The best-of-3 series begins at 7:15 p.m. today at Gesa Stadium.

Ben Alsup will start Game 1, followed by Christian Bergman in Game 2 at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. Tyler Gagnon will start in Game 3, if necessary.

"These guys put in the work, they show up every day and make adjustments," said pitching coach Dave Burba, who pitched 15 seasons for six major league teams. "All the credit goes to them."

The Dust Devils pitchers have established a new standard for excellence, matching the Northwest League record with 10 shutouts during the regular season.

Tri-City led all NWL staffs in fewest walks (223), fewest earned runs (227) and its team ERA of 3.03 is 72 points better than the next-lowest mark in the league (Yakima).

The Dust Devils also finished the regular season with the lowest ERA in Colorado Rockies' short-season history, topping the 2006 Tri-City club (3.04) by .01 points.

Most importantly, they've done it together.

"If you look at just talent, I don't think there's anybody who throws 93-94 miles per hour. The biggest thing is we take on everything as a whole as opposed to just a bunch of individuals going out there," said right-hander Christian Bergman, who was one of two Tri-City pitchers named to the NWL All-Star team along with left-hander Ken Roberts.

"A starter goes seven innings, the next guy comes in and helps him get out of a jam. Then, the next guy comes in and picks him up," Bergman said. "The next thing you know, we've won the game."

That example was followed almost exactly to the letter in Tri-City's first two postseason wins over Boise this year in the NWL Divisional Playoffs. The starters -- Bergman and Tyler Gagnon -- each went at least six strong innings. In both games, the relief corps faced some trouble but battled their way out of it.

That team-first philosophy is fostered from Day 1 in the Colorado Rockies' organization, and Ocasio and Burba have been successful at getting players to buy into that concept.

"The whole staff, from top to bottom, believes in the system," said Kyle Hancock, a right-hander who is recovering from shoulder surgery. "The experience (Burba) has speaks volumes."

The Rockies preach staying in the strike zone while delivering the ball on a downward plane, which typically results in a lot of ground balls. From there, pitchers are taught to let the defense do the work.

"We trust each other, and we know we can trust the defense to do their job," Roberts said.

There's no magic formula for the Dust Devils' success. Perhaps a little chemistry and a lot of competitive will just goes a long way.

"I don't think they're teaching anything different. Maybe a little fine-tuning here and there," said Tri-City right-hander Chris Jensen, who became the fourth Dust Devils hurler this season to earn NWL pitcher of the week honors, earning the nod Monday for a strong final week.

Nelson Gonzalez also got the honor on July 11, Bergman on Aug. 22 and Gagnon earned back-to-back nods on Aug. 1 and 8.

"We get ahead of hitters, challenge them and go right after them. All the starters have been doing their job, and when we come out, the bullpen is getting it done every time," Jensen said.

But when the work is done, Burba is a big advocate of allowing players to let their hair down, so to speak. All season long, Hancock and several teammates have sported mullet hairdos as part of the "Mullet Militia".

It's all in the spirit of keeping things light around the clubhouse.

"One day, Jesse Meaux filled in for Burba on our pitcher's talk before the game and did a pretty good impersonation," Bergman said. "I don't want to say (Burba) says the same thing every time, but the same themes tend to come up.

"It's always, 'Stop walking the leadoff guy.' Whenever we walk the leadoff guy, we hear about it the next day."

Fortunately, Dust Devils pitchers haven't done much of that. In fact, they've done a remarkable job keeping their team in games. Tri-City is 39-1 when leading after six innings, which speaks volumes about the bullpen's effectiveness.

"Just a bunch of guys going out and going after hitters," Ocasio said.

Now that same bunch of guys is closing in on an NWL championship.