The minor leagues may be more about development than they are about winning, but there are times when the two concepts are on parallel tracks, and the results can be rewarding for fans of the team both near and far.
Such was the case with the 2018 New Hampshire Fisher Cats, who romped to the Eastern League championship.
The Fisher Cats’ offence led the way, leading the league in team batting average, on base percentage, and slugging. In scoring 51 more runs than the next-highest scoring team in the league, New Hampshire also led the loop in doubles and stolen bases. Manager John Schneider gave the team the green light at the beginning of the season, and taking the extra base became standard operating procedure. They were fun to watch – a team that always put pressure on opposing defences.
The offence was led by a half season of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, but he was far from the only weapon in the New Hampshire arsenal. Vlad mashed his way to a .402 average before his promotion to Buffalo. Jonathan Davis joined Guerrero on the Niagara Frontier, slashing .302/388/.433 and adding 19 steals at the top of the Fisher Cats’ order. Harold Ramirez made a mid-season adjustment in his launch angle to lead the league in hitting, while Cavan Biggio led the EL in Homers. Bo Bichette may have struggled for the first time in his career, chasing pitches outside of the strike zone and seeing his average dip to a career-low .237 in May, but he rebounded to lead the league in doubles with 43 (just one off of the minor league lead).
New Hampshire’s pitching staff may not have posted numbers as gaudy as their hitters’, but they received solid starting pitching from the likes of Jordan Romano, who won his first 8 decisions and was the starting pitcher for the north in the EL All Star Game, and Jon Harris, whose increased velo helped him tied for 2nd with a dozen wins. TJ Zeuch arrived part way through the season from Dunedin and helped solidify the rotation, and the lock down bullpen anchored by Travis Bergen, Danny Young, and Zach Jackson took care of a lot of Fisher Cat leads.
Despite their juggernaut of an offence, New Hampshire stumbled down the stretch, playing .500 over their last ten games to finish 2 games back of the Yankees’ surging Trenton affiliate, who won nine of their last ten to take the division title, and home advantage in the best of five division final.
New Hampshire hosted the opening two games of the series, the first of which was an 8-0 laugher for the Fisher Cats. Bichette, Ramirez, and Max Pentecost had two hits apiece, and TJ Zeuch tossed six scoreless innings for the win.
Game two proved to be another blowout, as New Hampshire scored three in the first and two in the second en route to a 10-4 triumph. Bichette went 3-3, and seemed to hit everything hard, and Ramirez added 3 hits as well. Starter Hector Perez had some command issues and didn’t make it out of the fourth, but swingman Tayler Saucedo picked him up with 3+ scoreless innings, and Jackson followed by Young closed out the game, putting New Hampshire within a win of reaching the finals.
Game three saw the series switch to Trenton, but the result was no different. Cavan Biggio went 2-4 and drove in a pair as New Hampshire won the game 5-1, sweeping the series. The team hit a collective .287 in the series and stole 8 bases, while New Hampshire pitching held Trenton to five runs, and the bullpen allowed only a single run in 11.2 combined innings.
The EL finals began in Akron at the home of the Indians’ affiliate. New Hampshire continued their winning ways with a 10-inning, 3-1 victory. Mid-season acquisition Forrest Wall hit a two-run single to win it for the Fisher Cats, who were backed by another six strong innings from Zeuch.
Game 2 starter Harris showed little signs of rust from a 9-day layoff. He gave up a run in the home half of the first when a bloop double came around to score on a groundout and a sac fly, but Harris was dominant the rest of the way, fanning 7 over 6 innings having given up just that 1st inning run, retiring 11 in a row at one point.
The 3rd inning in that game showcased New Hampshire’s season, and Schneider’s managing. Gunnar Heidt led off the inning with the team’s first hit of the inning, a single to right, then didn’t break stride rounding 2nd on Forrest Wall’s fading liner to left-centre. The Akron CF had no choice but to try to throw Heidt out, but he slid under the tag, with Wall alertly taking 2nd on the throw. Wall got a huge secondary lead off of the base, and came around to score behind Heidt on Jon Berti’s single up the middle:
But having taken the lead 2-1, New Hampshire wasn’t finished. Bichette lined a ball between SS and 3B – the only hard hit ball of the inning, moving Berti up to 2nd. The next batter, batting champ Ramirez, laid down a perfect bunt in front of home plate on the first pitch he saw, advancing the runners 90 ft.
Biggio was up next, and he hit a grounder that Akron 1B Nellie Rodriguez had to range several steps to his right to snare. Rodriguez looked Berti, who had come not quite half way down the line, back to 3rd, then moved over to first to retire Biggio. When Berti looked back at 3rd, he saw Bichette coming into the base with a full head of steam, so he scampered home and successfully avoided the tag on Rodriguez’ throw.
Despite the long inning, Harris came out in the bottom half throwing strikes, retiring the side in order. As proof that it was the Fisher Cats’ night, Ramirez was caught off 3rd in the 6th inning when Josh Palacios hit a grounder to 1st. Rodriguez raced across the diamond to chase Ramirez back to the base, and all but had him out when his throw to 3rd hit the retreating runner in the hand. Ramirez turned and scampered home safely.
Game 3 of the best of five series shifted back to New Hampshire, and while it wasn’t necessarily a formality, momentum was clearly on the Fisher Cats’ side. A clearly gassed Romano pitched until the fifth, but his offence put up a pair of runs in the second, third, and fourth, and turned over a four-run lead when the bullpen picked him up. Bichette demonstrated his range with his defensive gem in the 8th:
Bergen gave up a single run in the 9th, but preserved New Hampshire’s 8-5 win. Ramirez was named the Playoffs MVP, and while there was no finals MVP, Wall, who hit .400 for the series, likely would have gotten the nod.
For a guy who watched a lot of the Fisher Cats this year while the big club wandered the second division desert, it was truly a magical year. There was the Vlad and Bo show, the hitting of Ramirez and Biggio, and the steadying veteran presence of Berti. Santiago Espinal, who arrived in July after being acquired from the Red Sox, was a pleasant surprise on both sides of the ball. Wall gave the team a much-needed boost in athleticism, while Romano, Harris, and Zeuch could be counted to pitch in the sixth or seventh almost every start, handing things off to a shut down pen. Behind the scenes, Schneider worked his magic, like deliberately throwing BP pitches off the plate to Bichette, forcing him to rein in his aggressiveness. Hitting coach Hunter Mense, new to the organization, was helping to teach hitters a new approach, while pitching coach Vince Horsman, who unfortunately had to miss the final due to a family issue, was his usual calm and steadying self with his pitching staff. For the Blue Jays, it was a successful exercise in player development. The sport science department had been working with players in New Hampshire for several seasons, teaching them to eat, train, and recover in accordance with modern methods. Young players like Bichette and Guerrero were mixed in with veterans like Ramirez and later Berti. For the New Hampshire fans, who had not had a winner since 2011 (their second as a Blue Jays affiliate), it was a return to the winners circle, and 6500 fans packed Northeast Delta Dental Stadium for the final game. And while the band has been broken up (Schneider was named to the Blue Jays’ coaching staff, Mense has become the team’s MiLB hitting co-ordinator, Guerrero will be a major leaguer in April, Ramirez and Berti left as free agents, Romano was taken in the Rule 5 draft, and Zeuch, Bichette, Biggio, and Espinal are almost certainly Buffalo-bound), the Blue Jays have a promising crop of players likely headed to the Eastern League this season.
Early in the year, Romano said this was the best team he had ever played for. Schneider likened the Vlad/Bo hype to travelling with a boy band, and Mense said he learned far more from the players than they probably did from him. The 2018 Fisher Cats were a successful combination of winning and development.