A brotherhood stays strong, win or lose.
That’s what the Tri-City Dust Devils came to depend on during the 2015 Northwest League season, and it resulted in one of the best years in franchise history.
The Dust Devils finished the season Sunday, losing 6-1 in Game 3 of the NWL championship series and falling short of team’s first NWL title since it arrived in Pasco in 2001.
But none of the players — and certainly none of the coaches — would consider that a failure, especially in light of the success they shared over the previous 81 games.
“No matter what happens with me in my future in coaching, I’ll always come back to this team and the way they went about their business,” Tri-City manager Anthony Contreras said after his first year with the Dust Devils. “The chemistry they had in the clubhouse, on the bus or on road trips — I know what it looks like now. Any time I have problems in the future, I’ll know what to come back to to round up the troops and get them back on board.”
At 42-34, the Dust Devils finished with the third-best regular-season record in team history, trailing only to the 2009 club that went 47-29 and the 2011 team that finished 44-32. They also set some team records along the way, as the pitching staff struck out 675 batters, an average of 8.9 per game. Tri-City hitters drew 357 walks, an average of 4.7 per game, to smash the previous team mark of 334. The Dust Devils’ league-leading on-base percentage of .351 helped score 390 runs, an average of 5.1 per game.
More impressive than the numbers, though, was the way the team worked together.
“Coming into pro ball, I knew this was a job now, so I wasn’t expecting the camaraderie we had,” Dust Devils first baseman Ty France said.
France had a remarkable stretch of reaching base in 38 consecutive games, either by base hit or walk, the best streak of any NWL player since they began tracking the stat.
“The first year for a lot of these guys is a big deal, because that’s their introduction to pro baseball. The way they got along is something they’ll never forget,” Tri-City hitting coach Marvin Benard said. “For me, in my first year (as a pro coach), I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Nelson Cruz, the Dust Devils pitching coach, was impressed by how much knowledge the first-year players were able to absorb and their ability to handle the pressure of holding a lead. That was something Tri-City did extremely well, especially down the stretch.
Over the final 10 games — of which the Dust Devils won eight — the Tri-city pitching staff had a collective 1.51 ERA. The bullpen was even more astonishing over that stretch, allowing just four runs in 55 2/3 innings for a 0.65 ERA.
“The kids learned how to push themselves in tough situations — on travel days and in the playoffs. They’re going to be able to (use those lessons) when they get to the big leagues,” Cruz said. “They learned the importance of staying together as a team. It was a productive season for all of them.”
Even when things got bad — Tri-City lost 10 of its last 15 games in August before going 6-0 in September to end the regular season — the Dust Devils had built enough trust in each other to find their way out of it.
“In pro baseball, you have to enjoy it. It’s such a grind that can wear on you and knock you down,” Contreras said. “It’s hard to come out of it sometimes, but these guys knew how to pick each other up. They knew how to erase a bad day and keep winning.”
The Dust Devils had three players — SS Peter Van Gansen, OF Jose Carlos Urena and LHP Elvin Liriano — selected to play in the NWL-Pioneer League All-Star game on Aug. 4. Urena struck out twice, but Liriano pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings and Van Gansen hit a walk-off RBI single to win the game for the NWL in the 10th inning.
Following the season, Urena and LHP Walker Lockett were named to the NWL postseason All-Star team. Ironically, Lockett didn’t get to finish the season in Tri-City after he and Trevor Megill were demoted to the Arizona League Padres on Aug. 16.
Urena, who led the league with 49 walks and led Tri-City in home runs (7), RBIs (45) and slugging percentage (.409), finished the year in a terrible slump, batting just 4-for-49 (.082) over his final 14 games.
“He’s a big power bat that did well all season. When he started to slump, he started trying too hard to carry the team,” Contreras said. “He just has to learn from his struggles and know (a recovery is) not going to happen overnight.”
The Dust Devils broke the team attendance mark of 86,095 fans, set in 2012, with a season total of 89,674, a sign that minor-league baseball is still alive and kicking at Gesa Stadium.
See you next year?
Contreras: “(The Padres and I) have talked about being here, we talked about going up, even talked about going back down to rookie ball. I expressed to them that I could go either way. I enjoy the Tri-Cities. I’m a very mellow, keep-to-myself kind of guy, and the city fits me that way. But if they want to challenge me and move me up to full-season, I’ll take on the challenge just like I took on this one.”
Benard: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everything is year-to-year. I’d love to be able to come back, but I don’t have control over that.”