One of my favorite parts about watching, broadcasting and writing about sports is seeing a team grow through the season, maturing and learning, getting better at its craft, reaching its potential, ultimately earning a postseason berth and thriving.
One of the amazing parts of watching minor league baseball teams have success is if you are good at your level, your organization will move you up right in the middle of the season. Another player from a lower level takes your place and the team must soldier on.
So if you are good in the minors, your team is likely not to stay together for 100 games of a season.
That is why it says a lot about organizational depth when a group of affiliates have success and earn a playoff berth at the end of the season because they were able to demonstrate consistency for four or five months in a row.
Last season, the Nationals had no less than four affiliates reach the postseason. Even the Arizona Fall League team, the Mesa Solar Sox, which was fortified with seven top Nationals prospects, made it to the championship game.
The rookie-level Gulf Coast League Nationals, low Single-A Hagerstown Suns, high Single-A Potomac Nationals and Double-A Harrisburg Senators all reached their respective league championship series. The GCL Nationals ultimately captured their league crown, capping off a stunning 52-9 season.
Hagerstown battled the Savannah Sand Gnats in the final round in Georgia.
Then-manager Tripp Keister recollected that final week, how quickly the season came to an end in the Suns’ final 2-0 setback, and the aftermath of an incredible season that was over just like that.
“We won Game 1, lost Game 2 and went to Savannah,” Keister noted. “It was a weird situation where some of the guys, because we were close to Florida, went to instructional league. There almost was like there wasn’t any closure.
“(After the loss), some of the guys went with us back up to Hagerstown. Some of the staff went down to Florida again. It was really weird. (Because of the loss), it almost felt like it didn’t end on a positive. You just kind of had a sour taste in your mouth.”
Months later, Keister stayed in contact with his team. He was struck by the emotion the players still had for that final week of the season.
“It is funny when I checked in with some of the guys at Thanksgiving and Christmas, saying, ‘You doing all right? And have a happy new year,’ stuff like that,” he said. “Four or five of them texted me back saying they wished the season didn’t end the way that it did.
“I had guys texting me back, ‘Gosh, I wish we had one more game!.’ Even in Game 4 in Savannah, we had the tying run at second base and go-ahead run at the plate. I still say we were right there in it trying to force a Game 5. Guys were really down when the season ended. They were upset. I was too. We all were. It was one of those things you talk about.
“You can tell when players really care. You never really want the outcome to be what you are after. You want the process and their development to be top priority. But you want to win, too. It really felt good to have those guys feel that way.
“They really did care about the team and how it ended. I have a lot of respect for this group of guys we worked with. I am looking forward to working with that group again because they did go about their business very professionally.”
That is what Keister will be able to do now.
Most of the players he coached in Hagerstown will move up to Woodbridge, Va., and play for him and the coaching staff of Franklin Bravo and Brian Rupp with high Single-A Potomac this April.
It would not be surprising to see this group help the P-Nats reach the Mills Cup final two seasons in a row. Now if they can just go out and win it.