Wong Keys Bulls’ Triple-A Championship

The response from Kean Wong’s teammates came quicker than his own answer to the question.

“Talk about Kean! Talk about Kean!”

The Durham Bulls were gathered behind Wong, their second baseman, at the end of a tour-de-force performance by the Rays farmhand. The star of the Triple-A National Championship, Wong took home the Baseball America MVP trophy in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s PNC Field, knocking three hits, including a game-turning grand slam, and turning in several defensive highlights as the Bulls beat the Memphis Redbirds 5-3.

Shifting from giving the title trophy to manager Jared Sandberg to presenting Wong with his trophy in the postgame, I tried to couch a question on how Wong now had something on his older brother Kolten, the Cardinals’ big league second sacker. But putting Wong in the context of his brother was a tired ploy to his teammates, and I immediately recognized my mistake.

“You’re talking to Ryne Sandberg’s nephew,” Sandberg said with a Champagne-soaked smile. “He’s got to make a name for himself, I had to make a name for myself. It’s exactly what we’ve talked about. That was his moment, and we’re all proud of him.”

The next question was about his defense, as Wong showed excellent range to his left and right on groundballs and popups. “I just wanted to do something to help the team and make it look cool,” a smiling Wong said, before the Hawaii native was drowned out by his cheering teammates.

That camaraderie is not the reputation of Triple-A baseball, but the National Championship, a one-game playoff between the International League and Pacific Coast League winners, has earned its own reputation. All the players, like all minor leaguers, would rather be in the major leagues. But if you’re playing baseball in the minors in late September, that means something went right.

A lot went right for Durham in 2017, giving the Bulls their second Triple-A National Championship and first since 2009. That team in ‘09 featured several players who have had significant big league careers, such as Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings and Sean Rodriguez, and that’s likely with this year’s group as well.

Moreover, Durham won with a roster that featured prospects who spent the bulk of the season, if not the entire year, with the club. Shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman Jake Bauers spent the entire season playing for manager Jared Sandberg and his staff. So did lefthander Ryan Yarbrough, in his first year in the system, who led the IL in strikeouts. The Bulls set an IL record with 1,421 regular-season strikeouts as a staff, bolstered by righthanders Yonny Chirinos and Brent Honeywell, the latter of whom spent all but two starts in Durham.

Honeywell got eight outs in the championship game, stifling Memphis with defensive help from Wong, who made a running, leaping throw to first after fielding a ground ball to his right. He was almost in the traditional shortstop’s spot, but that’s a play he’s worked hard to master as he adjusts to all the different spots where Sandberg’s defensive shifts could take him.

“It goes to what (we) talked about in Arizona Fall League,” Sandberg said. “With the shifts he’s going to be playing at higher levels in the Rays organization and in the big leagues, he had to start practicing in different spots (on the field), and he started to realize how to make those plays. What balls you can get to, yes, but also just going up the middle and making that backhanded play. He’s worked hard on that play. Taking balls on the outfield grass and making those plays and those long throws.

“It’s a whole new dynamic to playing second base. He took to the throwing program, he took the throwing program seriously. And the double-play ball, if you’re shifted on the third-base side of the bag, he’s done that and can make that play.”

He seemed to make all the plays, with his teammates joking that he’d put himself on the prospect map. That’s even after the game started on a sour note for Wong, who singled in the first but was thrown out going first-to-third on a tremendous throw from right field by Memphis’ Adolis Garcia. Wong paused briefly after the play after getting tagged in the face, but he recovered and more than saved face the rest of the game.

Honeywell, Adames and Bauers get their share of attention and then some, and all figure to be Top 10 Rays prospects this offseason. Diego Castillo, the burly closer who got the final four outs for the save, likely will be a big leaguer soon as well with a fastball that consistently reaches the upper 90s and a breaking ball he located at key moments in getting the championship save.

But on this Tuesday night on the edge of the Poconos, Wong was the star.

“He hit a grand slam earlier in the season, but to make that happen in this game was special, especially after earlier in the game, trying to make a play, got thrown out at third, but he continued to play well,” Sandberg said. “He had a great night.”



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