The Midland RockHounds actually pulled it off. They finished the regular season with a losing record in the Double-A Texas League, both overall and in the second half alone, but they managed to slip into the playoffs thanks to a series of tiebreakers. They went down 2-1 in the best-of-5 Division Series, two innings from elimination, but came back to clinch a spot in the finals. Then they went down 2-0 in the best-of-5 Championship Series, facing three must-win games on the road ... and won them all, including a 1-0 victory in the finale on Sunday. Holy Toledo.
With that, the Hounds captured their fourth straight league championship. Looking back in the history books, the Fort Worth Panthers won six straight from 1920-25, but that was before the Double-A designation even existed. It’s all a matter of qualifying your statement as subtly as possible: This is the longest title streak ever in the Double-A Texas League.
Here’s a closer look.
Midland RockHounds vs. Tulsa Drillers (Dodgers)
League: Double-A Texas League
Best-of-5 Championship Series
Hounds win series 3-2
Neither team brought their bats to Game 5, so the outcome was decided via pitching and defense. Midland held the advantage in both areas, which earned them the victory in the best setting sports has to offer — a nailbiting thriller in a winner-take-all championship tilt, with the suspense heightened even further by a brief rain delay at the start.
Tulsa opened the game with a mistake that turned out to haunt them. A fielding error by the Drillers 3B allowed Midland leadoff man Jorge Mateo to reach second base, and the speedster soon moved to third on a productive groundout. Up stepped the Hounds’ postseason dynamo, Viosery Rosa, and he came through again like he has so many times over the last two Septembers. He lined a single through a heavy shift to plate Mateo for an unearned run, his 16th RBI of these playoffs in 10 contests (and 36th in 25 career postseason games).
That run, that little gift from Tulsa, held up for nine full innings. It wasn’t for lack of trying, as there were rallies on both sides throughout the evening. But 52 more outs were recorded by the two clubs after Rosa’s hit in the 1st, and no more runs were pushed across.
One key reason for that stalemate was James Naile. The right-hander had been knocked around in his first two postseason starts this year, including the opener of this series, but Big Game James proved to be tough as a Naile in this one. He navigated through six imperfect but scoreless frames, only once going 1-2-3 but never letting things get out of hand. He finished strong by retiring eight of his last 10 batters, with one of the exceptions being an (ultimately harmless) error by Mateo in the 5th.
Notwithstanding that miscue, Midland’s defense helped out early on as well. Naile put five runners on base in the first two innings, but catcher Sean Murphy cut down two of them trying to steal — limiting the damage in the moment, and shutting down any hope of a Tulsa running game. Another was eliminated in a double play, and a second GIDP in the 4th squashed what could have been trouble with two on and no out.
Meanwhile, the Hounds couldn’t score either for the rest of night. They reached scoring position in the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, and 9th, but each time they fell short.
After Naile’s departure, and with the lineup missing chance after chance, it became clear that the bullpen was going to have to come up big if the victory was to be sealed. The scoreboard read 1-0 and there was no margin for error — they needed to toss up three zeroes to close out the season.
That’s exactly what they did. Tyler Sturdevant, pitching for the third straight day, breezed through a perfect 7th. Joel Seddon, hero of the Division Series as a spot starter, got two outs in the 8th but put a runner on second; veteran lefty Brandon Mann came in to clean it up. On three pitches Mann struck out Texas League MVP Matt Beaty, who’d been 3-for-3 on the night and posted a minuscule 11.2% K-rate this season.
And then it came down to the bottom of the 9th. Midland closer Kyle Finnegan entered, fresh off saving each of the wins the previous two nights. After two quick outs, he got the next batter to whiff for strike three ... only for the pitch to go wild, allowing him to reach base and extend the game. Fortunately, on the very next offering, Finnegan induced a grounder to second that Max Schrock was able to convert even after an initial bobble.
And just like that, against all odds every step of the way, the Midland RockHounds were Texas League champions yet again. Crazy. Just plain crazy.
Viosergy Rosa, 1B: 1-for-3, 2 BB, RBI
Max Schrock, 2B: 3-for-5, 2B
Sheldon Neuse, 3B: 1-for-4, 2B, BB
Jorge Mateo, SS: 0-for-5, run
1 hit each for: Sportman, Ramirez, Murphy, Tarsovich
James Naile: 6 ip, 0 runs, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 5 hits, 95 pitches (59 strikes)
As for Naile, you can’t help but marvel at the deja vu. In 2016, Midland entered Game 4 looking to clinch the title. They waited through a rain delay, and then Naile stepped up and delivered six shutout frames (6 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 2 hits, 85 pitches). His first bit of run support that night also came from Rosa, on a solo homer in the 2nd, though the Hounds eventually scored a few more.
This time around, the script more or less repeated itself. Uncooperative weather, six scoreless from Naile, key RBI from Rosa. Midland has won the championship so many times that they’re running out of new ways to do it; for the season finale this year they just popped in a rerun. No worries, though, this episode never gets boring no matter how many times you watch it.
Championship Series review
The Hounds lineup had two primary leaders in this series. Sheldon Neuse provided the bulk numbers, going 9-for-18 with four walks and four extra-base hits. His three-run homer in Game 4 broke the game open en route to Midland’s most comfortable triumph of the weekend.
But if I had to pick my MVP, it would by Viosergy Rosa. Analysis shifts when it comes to a short series, and suddenly one stat becomes much more important: timely RBI. In Game 3, Rosa drove in the first run of an eventual 2-0 victory with nothing more complex than a productive groundout. In Game 4, it was Rosa who broke the 1-1 tie for good with an RBI single before Neuse’s dinger. And in Game 5, Rosa was the only Hound who could find a way to drive anyone in all night. Even in the failed comeback in Game 2, Rosa’s RBI single broke the seal on the late-inning rally and set up another big hit by Neuse.
So, choose your weapon, or just appreciate both. Neuse put up the stats, and he was the team’s best overall hitter by far. Rosa was consistently the difference-maker, night after night. In a series won by the skin of their teeth, Midland needed every contribution they could get.
Sheldon Neuse, 3B: 9-for-18, HR, 3B, 2 2B, 4 BB, 3 Ks, 5 RBI, 3 runs
Max Schrock, 2B: 9-for-23, 2 2B, 0 BB, 2 Ks, 3 runs, RBI
Viosergy Rosa, 1B: 4-for-19, 4 BB, 3 Ks, 4 RBI
Postseason overall: Neuse .971 OPS, Schrock batted .350, Rosa 16 RBI
On the pitching side, James Naile and Heath Fillmyer both delivered scoreless starts, lasting six and five innings respectively. Fillmyer’s came in a seemingly hopeless situation, down 0-2 in the series and facing a legit MLB veteran in Brandon McCarthy. Naile’s came in the finale, and it was good enough to forget that he got lit up in Game 1.
In the bullpen, closer Kyle Finnegan got his chance to shine. It’s one thing to come in for the quick save at the end, and only once was he asked to protect a one-run lead. But he made those three outings on three consecutive nights, all on the road, and he needed only 31 pitches to record 10 total outs — 11 if you count the strikeout-error on Sunday. His only imperfection was a lone walk, though he saw one more runner reach base via catcher’s interference.
James Naile: 12 ip, 5 runs, 11 Ks, 4 BB, 15 hits, 0 HR
Heath Fillmyer: 5 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 3 BB, 3 hits, 0 HR
Grant Holmes: 6⅓ ip, 3 runs (2 earned), 6 Ks, 3 BB, 4 hits, 0 HR
Kyle Finnegan: 3⅓ ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 1 BB, 0 hits, 3 saves
Postseason overall: Finnegan had 5 scoreless outings, 4-of-4 saves
Four straight championships is a lot, especially in the minor leagues. The personnel is constantly turning over, and even on an experienced squad like these Hounds the “veterans” like Rosa and Naile have only been there for half of the rings. Here’s one amazing fact:
To put this run in perspective: Hiroyuki Nakajima played on the 2014 team that started the streak. That's how long it has gone on.— Melissa Lockard (@oakclubhouse) September 18, 2017
Addison Russell and Miles Head also briefly played on that 2014 team.
More recently, the following players appeared in the postseason each of the last two years and have now earned their second ring: pitchers James Naile, Joel Seddon, Kyle Finnegan, Brandon Mann, Sam Bragg, and Cody Stull; infielders Max Schrock and Viosergy Rosa; and outfielders J.P. Sportman and (briefly) Tyler Marincov. Pitcher Heath Fillmyer was on the DL during last year’s run, while catcher Andy Paz and outfielder Brett Vertigan were holdovers on this year’s roster but didn’t play in the final series (Vertigan is on the DL).
Whichever way you slice it, tonight we saw a rare form of sports greatness: the continuation of a minor league baseball dynasty. Congratulations to the Midland RockHounds on their fourth straight championship!!
Bonus link: Revisit the 2015 championship run, led by Sean Manaea, Renato Nunez, Jaycob Brugman, Ryon Healy, and Matt Olson, all without the help of league MVP Chad Pinder who was shut down with a minor injury. Unfortunately I don’t have a link for 2014, when superhero Matt Chapman joined the club three months after being drafted and helped lead them to postseason victory.