BURLINGTON, N.C.—Appalachian League commissioner Lee Landers was soaking in every bit of the atmosphere Saturday night at Burlington Athletic Stadium.
"It's been a great year for us," Landers said. "They've been waiting a long time in this town for a winner and they've responded."
There were 522 fans for the Royals' game with the Elizabethton Twins, and some of them probably were around for the 1993 Burlington team—an Indians affiliate at the time—that won the town's last Appy League championship. They were excited to have any playoff game to cheer about and were treated to a thriller, a 3-2, 12-inning home victory that ended on a Bubba Starling sacrifice fly, scoring Terrance Gore ahead of a throw by Byron Buxton.
Elizabethton went on to win the league title, however, with an extra-innings win in Game Two and a walk-off grand slam by D.J. Hicks in a 12-inning victory in Game Three. The E-Twins trailed 6-1 in the ninth before rallying to score five runs to tie the game, capped by a three-run homer by Adam Brett Walker, before Hicks' game-winner in the 12.
All three games were decided in extra innings, and all three featured significant prospects. Here's some of what we saw Saturday from this unique Rookie-ball playoff series.
• Buxton and Starling were the star attractions, as the two center fielders signed for a combined $13.6 million over the last two drafts. Starling, the fifth overall pick in 2011 ($7.5 million contract), had the game-winning sac fly Saturday and wound up hitting a pair of home runs in the series. He went 7-for-23 in six playoff games with 11 strikeouts, three walks and three home runs.
With his parents Jimbo and Deb on site for the playoffs, Starling appeared to be fighting fatigue at the end of his first full season as a baseball-only player. While he spent the start of the season in extended spring training, his 59 games played for Burlington (counting playoffs) is far more than the Nebraska native ever played when he was a three-sport prep star, with a full Division I football ride awaiting him if he chose that route.
Starling's swing was long several times Saturday, from a weak foul ball on a 2-0 pitch in the fifth inning (when he eventually was walked on five pitches) to a pair of strikeouts in the eighth and 10th innings. Starling didn't show much of a two-strike approach in terms of shortening up his swing, nor were his pitch recognition skills on display. He struck out on three breaking balls from 6-foot-8 righty Tyler Herr in the eighth, none of which was particularly close to the strike zone.
Buxton, on the other hand, got better as the night went on. He was 0-for-3 with a walk when he was caught looking at a third strike to lead off the seventh, with his game highlight being a 3.88-second burst to first on a third-inning bunt attempt that wound up rolling foul. But he lined an infield single in the ninth off the leg of Burlington pitcher Josiel Martinez, then singled to lead off the 10th off righty Matt Peterson, a line drive over the pitcher's head into center. Buxton got ahead in every count except a fifth-inning groundout to first.
• Walker and Hicks both homered Saturday as well as in the clincher. Walker, who tied Burlington's Patrick Leonard for the league's home run title, hit 17 counting the playoffs, and his homer Saturday was a no-doubter. He also added a single and stolen base, indicating a bit of his athleticism, and three strikeouts, showing just how much work he has to do. The Wisconsin native comes with a lot of swing-and-miss; after striking out 22 percent of his at-bats in the spring for Jacksonville, he whiffed in 32 percent in the Appy League (87 in 256 overall at-bats). Walker has snap in his wrists but gets his hands started on virtually every pitch, which leads in part to his propensity to swing at everything.
Another college bat of note, former Stanford infielder Kenny Diekroeger, continued his late slide as he hit .165 over his final 97 at-bats. Many players appeared to be running on fumes in a September game of consequence, and that's especially understandable for someone like Diekroeger, whose Stanford season started back on Feb. 17. However, Diekroeger also drifted backwards in each at-bat Saturday; his first movement was away from the plate. That makes it hard to hit.
Leonard and Elizabethton's Travis Harrison presented two more similar cases—righthanded-hitting power bats attempting to play third in the low minors. Leonard had the better power numbers with 14 homers (none in the postseason), but Harrison's feel for hitting helped him post a better OPS (.844 to .833). He impressed Saturday with a fine play on a too-hard bunt by the swift Gore, who has posted 3.7-second times to first base from the right side and might be the fastest runner in the minor leagues, even including Billy Hamilton. Harrison went 1-for-3 with two walks and ran with effort.
• Twins righthander Angel Mata got the start and gave up five hits and a run to the first nine batters he faced before settling down to retire 11 of the last 13 men he faced. Mata's fastball was in the 90-92 mph range early and his breaking ball was better than advertised. Mata calls the pitch a curve, and it was in the 79-80 mph range, and he used it to help rack up six strikeouts in five innings—two of them looking at breaking balls.
• Saturday's game featured several defensive gems, the best coming in the bottom of the ninth by Elizabethton's Jorge Polanco. Diekroger had walked with one out when nine-hole hitter Beau Maggi chopped a single to the right side that bounded over Hicks' glove for a hit. Polanco ranged far to his left to stop the ball, then got up and made a strong, accurate throw to third to get Diekroeger, who was trying to go from first to third. Instead of runners at the corner with one out in the last of the ninth, there were two outs and a runner at second (as Maggi moved up on the play). Polanco was signed primarily for his glove, and his defensive tools—range, hands, arm strength—were all displayed in this one play.
Twins shortstop Niko Goodrum, in his third year in Rookie ball thanks in part to a glut of shortstops in the system's lower levels, also made a pair of fine plays, including a second-inning, bases-loaded, none-out play where he dove into the hole between short and third to spear a Maggi grounder, popped up and threw to Harrison at third for a force out. A run came home, but Mata struck out Gore and Humberto Artreaga to limit the damage to one run.