SAN ANTONIO’”When Randy Ready returned to the Double-A Texas League in April, he knew had some hard work ahead of him.
Ready, the first-year manager of the San Antonio Missions, didn’t have a roster filled with high-powered prospects in the Padres farm system. He didn’t have a proven cleanup hitter, or a leadoff guy, or a closer, and the pitching rotation was a work in progress. Not surprisingly, the Missions finished last in the first half in the league’s Southern Division, 16 games behind Frisco.
|1996||Edmonton/Pacific Coast (Athletics)|
|1997||West Michigan/Midwest (Tigers)|
|1999||Trenton/Eastern (Red Sox)|
|2000||Round Rock/Texas (Astros)|
|2001||Lake Elsinore/California (Padres)|
|2003||Sacramento/Pacific Coast (Athletics)|
|2006||Tucson/Pacific Coast (Diamondbacks)|
Then the Padres made a few roster moves, and a handful of players who showed potential in the first half began to emerge as leaders. The team clinched a playoff berth during the last homestand of the year, swept Frisco in the divisional series and beat Springfield three games to one for its first Texas League pennant since 2003 and 11th overall.
For their run to the title in their first year as a San Diego affiliate, the Missions also won Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year award.
“Going from worst to first is a quite a tribute to everybody on this team,” said Ready, who won the Texas League batting title in 1982 for the El Paso Diablos. “We had guys on this team who did their jobs and got things done.”
Two of those players earned the league’s top individual honors in 2007: Third baseman Chase Headley and righthander Josh Geer were voted the league’s player and pitcher of the year.
Headley won the batting title and was a threat to win the league’s triple crown for much of the year. The switch-hitter wound up at .330 in a season when just four players in the league topped .300, and he finished with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs.
Geer, a changeup specialist who barely made the Missions as their No. 5 starter in the spring, emerged as the staff’s ace. He had the league’s lowest ERA at 3.20 and won a league-high 16 games, as well as one in the playoffs.
“He was our go-to guy,” Ready said of Geer, who grew up in East Texas and was drafted in the third round from Rice in 2005. “The club was confident when he took to the mound that we were going to win that night. That’s the greatest compliment that you can give any pitcher.”
Two other players who were with the team all season made the league’s postseason all-star team: outfielder Will Venable, who returned to his forte of slash-and-run hitting in the second half and hit a team-best .387 in the playoffs, and catcher Nick Hundley, who handled a pitching staff that finished the season with the league’s best ERA.
Infusion Of Talent
But it was the newcomers who made the difference. Among the biggest moves were the promotions of three players from high Class A Lake Elsinore: second baseman Matt Antonelli, outfielder Chad Huffman and lefthander Wade LeBlanc.
Antonelli gave the Missions a spark in the batting order, and Huffman gave Ready more flexibility in the outfield. LeBlanc, a second-round pick last year, might have been the best pitcher in the league the second half. He went 7-3, 3.45 in 12 starts, and in his last six appearances, including the playoffs, he gave up a total of five earned runs.
LeBlanc, like Geer and lefthander Cesar Ramos (who was 13-9), depended more on location and a deadly changeup than an overpowering fastball.
“These guys knew they had to make some adjustments to pitch at this level, and they made them,” Missions pitching coach Glenn Abbott said.
The bullpen got its closer in July when the Padres signed Edwin Moreno, who went 9-for-10 in save opportunities.
The Missions’ hottest hitter in the postseason, Brett Dowdy, joined the team from Triple-A Portland in June. The utitility man, who played second base until Antonelli arrived, finished hitting .265/.360/.408, then went 11-for-29 with three homers in the playoffs.
“He was the MVP of the whole postseason,” Ready said. “He got an opportunity to make something happen, and he slugged his way through the playoffs.”
As did the Missions.