The 2015 Sioux City Explorers may be the best team in American Association history. Depending on how the season wraps up, they may be one of the best teams in independent league history.
Steve Montgomery and his staff have done a masterful job of assembling both a pitching staff and lineup that have left the league baffled. Three Explorers starting pitchers rank among the top 10 in the league in ERA. Sioux City has four of the top 10 hitters in the league as measured by OPS (on-base-plus-slugging).
At 61-20 with a .7530 winning percentage, the Explorers were on pace to break the 1998 Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks 64-21 (.7529) record for the best winning percentage in American Association/Northern League history. That RedHawks team also holds the record for the best winning percentage in any of the four largest independent leagues (Atlantic, American Association, Can-Am and Frontier).
But to be considered the best team in the AA's independent history, the Explorers have to overcome one big problem—they may not be the best team in the American Association this season. As good as the Explorers have been so far, the St. Paul Saints have been just a little bit better. With three weeks left in the regular season the Saints were 62-19 (a .765 winning percentage).
Like the Explorers, the Saints were simply lapping the rest of the American Association.
St. Paul led the North Division by 25 games. Sioux City led the Central Division by 18 1/2. St. Paul paced the league with 506 runs scored; Sioux City ranked second with 460. No other team in the league had more than 413. St. Paul had allowed a league-best 275 runs; Sioux City was second at 280. No other team in the league had allowed less than 327.
So two teams established themselves clearly as the class of the league with the best lineups, the best pitching staffs and two of the best defenses (the Saints sat second in the league in fielding percentage; the Explorers were third).
Thankfully they have each other. Because while one team running away with the regular season crown may get a little mundane, two teams pushing each other for the best record in baseball makes for quite the thrilling end-of-season chase.
“Both of us want to finish with the best record. When we play them everyone is up for it," Saints manager George Tsamis said. “You want to beat the best team. We want to finish with the best record. They want to finish with the best record. It's been crazy. Both teams have been getting it done all year long."
It's a well-timed run for the Saints. St. Paul opened brand new CHS Field this year, replacing its much loved, but also very old and very tired Midway Stadium. Fans have responded—the Saints were averaging 8,073 fans per game this year. The new park has also made it easier for Tsamis to put together his roster. While the old park had a great atmosphere for fans, the old clubhouse and lack of amenities made it a hard sell for players.
“I have had guys in the past say there is no way they'd play here (because of the stadium)," Tsamis said. “(The new park) is so impressive. This may be the nicest minor league park I've seen. It's got a big league feel. With 8,000-9,000 fans every game, it's an electric place to be."
The two teams have faced each other in three series this season. In the first, St. Paul won two of three games at Sioux City's park. In the second, Sioux City won two of three in St. Paul's. In the third series, St. Paul won two games to clinch the season series.
The Saints have initial bragging rights, but the battle for the league's best record will likely go down to the final week of the regular season. Both teams also know that even more importantly, they could meet again in the playoffs with significantly more on the line. Sioux City has never won a title. St. Paul's last came in 2004.
“It's great what we've done so far," Tsamis said. “But the goal is to win a championship. Anything short of it is disappointing."