Sunday, September 24, 2006

Affiliate shuffle

"Bubba" mentioned the Cubs signing a player-development contract with the Tennessee Smokies in a comment and asked about the other openings in the Southern League. It seemed logical to start a new thread about that. is a great place to track the affiliate shuffle -- and any off-the-field baseball news. They list three Class AA openings (San Antonio, Mobile and West Tenn) and three major-league teams needing affiliates (Mariners, Padres and Diamondbacks).

San Antonio had the Mariners and wants to look around. San Antonio will get first choice among the three suitors. Mobile will get the second pick and West Tenn will get whatever team is left.

There are two other affiliates where the signings are only a formality: Bowie and the Orioles, Reading and the Phillies.

The Devil Rays won't be back in Michigan. With Southwest Michigan becoming the Great Lakes Loons in Midland, Mich., the new franchise is flirting with the Dodgers, according to the site. The Rays could stay in the Midwest League (Clinton, Iowa??) but would prefer a South Atlantic League entry. Savannah and Columbus, Ga., are open. Savannah would be a better situation for the Rays.

The Dodgers will probably move their spring training to Arizona in two years and may sell their Vero Beach franchise in the high-Class A Florida State League to the Devil Rays. The Rays will move the franchise to their new complex in Port Charlotte that opens in 2009. If that happens, I'd expect the Rays to stay in Visalia for the next two years.

The affiliate dance will end this week. After that, Minor League Baseball starts matching up stragglers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Biscuits sweep Tampa Bay awards

Biscuits won both of Tampa Bay's annual minor-league awards, the Devil Rays announced Thursday.

Shortstop Reid Brignac is the Rays' minor-league player of the year and Andy Sonnanstine is the pitcher of the year.

Brignac excelled at Class A Visalia before coming to Montgomery in early August and helping the Biscuits win the Southern League championship. The 20-year-old hit a combined .321 with 24 home runs and 99 RBIs between the two stops. He was the California League's most valuable player.

Sonnanstine set an organizational record with 15 victories and also won two postseason games. In the regular season, he was 15-8 with a 2.67 ERA and had a nine-start win streak that included four shutouts. The four shutouts led the entire minor leagues for the season. The 23-year-old totaled 153 strikeouts in 185.2 innings. His workload ranks second on Tampa Bay's all-time list.

Sonnanstine was Montgomery's pitcher of the year and second baseman Elliot Johnson its top position player. Johnson hit .281 with a career-high 15 homers and 50 RBIs this year. He also scored a team-high 69 runs.

Former Biscuit Juan Salas won Class AAA Durham's pitcher's award. Salas did not allow an earned run in 34.2 innings for Montgomery before moving up to the Bulls. At Durham, Salas had a 1.57 ERA in 27 appearances and was promoted to the major leagues.

Tampa Bay's other winners ...
Durham Bulls
Player: INF/DH Kevin Witt
Visalia Oaks
Player: OF Fernando Perez
Pitcher: LH James Houser
Southwest Michigan Devil Rays
Player: OF J.T. Hall
Pitcher: LH Jacob McGee
Hudson Valley Renegades
Player: OF Ryan Royster
Pitcher: RH Jeremy Hellickson
Princeton Rays
Player: C Nevin Ashley
Pitcher: LH Ryan Morse

Monday, September 18, 2006

Oaks lose in Cal League championship

The Visalia Oaks, the up-and-coming Montgomery Biscuits, lost Monday in Game 5 of the California League championship series. The Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino scored a run in the eighth inning to grab the lead and turned to a former Tampa Bay farmhand to secure a 2-1 win.

Jose de la Cruz was traded from the Rays to the Seattle Mariners at the beginning of the season for Marcos Carvajal, who pitched for the Biscuits this year. De la Cruz got into trouble in the ninth -- Visalia had two runners on and one out -- but a flyout and strikeout ended it.

For the Oaks, Fernando Perez walked and scored on a John Jaso sacrifice fly in the sixth inning, while starting pitcher Derek Feldkamp gave up six hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings.

Feldkamp allowed an inside-the-park homer to Josh Womack in the fifth. In the eighth, Johan Limonta doubled home Reed Eastley off Oaks reliever Richard de los Santos.

Because Visalia's earlier two playoff series went to a final game, the Oaks were playing a playoff game for a 13th straight day.

The Biscuits did pilfer three of the Oaks' best players in early August: shortstop Reid Brignac, third baseman Evan Longoria and left fielder Patrick Breen. Those three helped fuel Montgomery's run to the Southern League championship.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Let the offseason begin

Your Monday paper marks a pseudo-milestone. It should be the first since March 25 in which the Montgomery Biscuits are not mentioned. That's a streak of 186 days.

We got lucky a few times to keep the streak going. The tough times were when the Biscuits had an off day and then were on a road trip. There were four of those.

May 22: Jeff Ridgway had just been promoted. We did a story on him packing everything up and getting to Durham so quickly.

June 18: Not much luck here. It marked the end of the first half of the season.

July 17: Michael Coleman was named the Southern League's hitter of the week.

Aug. 30: Of course, we had to make the mayor squirm a little over the $1,000 he suddenly owed Gabriel Martinez. Or, as he said when he presented the money Sept. 15: "Gabriel Mar-teen-ess."

Just because its the offseason doesn't mean an end to the ~beloved~ Riverwalk Talk (sarcasm). There will be news in the coming months over Tampa Bay's 40-man roster, the minor-league coaching staffs, the Devil Rays' affiliates and other happenings. Plus, I may post some musings from the season (favorite interviews is one subject dangling in my frail mind).

There could be something late tonight ... the Class A Visalia Oaks are one win from a California League championship.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Title hangover

The Biscuits start heading for home this morning, though some left town soon after Friday's win over Huntsville that brought Montgomery its sixth Southern League title.

I just went back over to the stadium (it's 3:20 a.m. right now) and there are a few players still there. They are trying to relax and rest before heading for home themselves.

Montgomery manager Charlie Montoyo may leave the city for the final time when he flies home today. Pitching coach Xavier Hernandez started for home late Firday. Hitting coach Mako Oliveras will start in that direction today.

Since the Devil Rays fired the entire staff at Class AAA Durham, those three could be in line for a promotion themselves. They'd all be good choices.

Michael Coleman turned it on during the championship series, Elliot Johnson hit for the cycle Friday -- the first in franchise history -- and the pitching was excellent. The crowds were intense, though some players thought the stands should have been packed. Minor-league playoffs are never good draws.

"That was a big-league atmosphere," Coleman said. "We have the greatest fans, period. Put that in all capital letters."

I won't do the ALL CAPS thing, but the fans were obviously into the games. When Coleman was hit by a pitch Thursday and a brawl almost ensued, the fans remembered when he came back up. They chanted his name. He responded with an RBI single.

Now, we have a cold offseason to wander through. Only 201 days, starting with Saturday, until Opening Day 2007.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


With how much the Biscuits were excited about their win Thursday, they were also disappointed.

"Where are all the fans?" one inquired after a mere announced crowd of 3,216 watched Montgomery's victory over Huntsville.

The people that were at Riverwalk were enthusiastic, particularly after the benches cleared in the sixth inning. Michael Coleman was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat after a home run. In the eighth, Coleman came back to the plate and the crowd greeted him by chanting his name.

If, some players said, there had only been more fans.

One win away

The Biscuits' 7-0 win over Huntsville on Saturday leaves Montgomery needing just one more victory to claim the Southern League championship.

Mayor Bobby Bright is bringing a $1,000 check to Riverwalk Stadium on Friday (he postponed Thursday) to pay off Gabriel Martinez for hitting a train with a home run. Bright might need to bring some more cash.

Way back in 2004, Bright showed up to pay Iker Franco for the same feat. Just before the pregame presentation, Montgomery manager Charlie Montoyo joked with Bright that he should pay him something for putting Franco in the lineup.

"Get into the playoffs and we'll talk," Bright said.

I was there, right next to Bright, and heard the conversation.

Oh, Mr. Mayor, how much is a league championship worth??? Of course, the Biscuits could lose the next two games and watch Huntsville celebrate.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bad loss, impressive acts

The Biscuits handed away Tuesday's opener of the Southern League championship series. Huntsville had only five hits in the Stars' 6-4 victory, but Montgomery committed five errors and issued seven walks.

Reid Brignac and Evan Longoria each committed two errors, one each in Huntsville's three-run eighth. They also stepped up after the game. They didn't back away from an interview, cower in an off-limits area or get snippy. They could have, but they didn't.

Jean Machi gave up a leadoff single in the eighth, threw nine straight balls and allowed a run before leaving without retiring a hitter. He also answered questions.

Auburn football player Ben Obomanu did the same after dropping a potential game-winning touchdown against Ole Miss a few years ago. He was skewered the next day, but stories after that applauded him for taking such responsibility.

That's a sign of maturity that should be applauded.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Five months late?

The Biscuits and Devil Rays announced Tuesday that they were extending their player development contract through 2008 -- five months after one of Montgomery's owners said so.

Biscuits owner Tom Dickson said in early April that the PDC was already set through 2008. That was part of the purchase agreement when Dickson and wife Sherrie Myers bought the Orlando Rays and moved them to Montgomery for the 2004 season. Tampa Bay had owned the Orlando franchise.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Big effect for next season?

Jason Cromer was on the Biscuits' original team and said Monday that a Southern League championship could heighten an already great atmosphere at Riverwalk Stadium.

The Biscuits face Huntsville in the Southern League championship series this week. Montgomery returned to the league in 2004 and has drawn at least 300,000 fans each season, but a league title (and even a successful season) could jack up the fun for 2007.

"It would add more excitement next year," Cromer said. "The excitement is already here and has been since Opening Day, but it never hurts to add more."

Saturday's 2-0 win over Jacksonville finished that series and came before an announced crowd of only 4,013 -- the smallest home Saturday crowd in Biscuits history -- but Cromer said it was an intense crowd ... and loud.

"Especially for the turnout," he said. "This is playoff baseball, so a lot of people don't know we're in town and it's football season, but it was a good crowd."

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Talbot's time off

The Biscuits made an unusual move for the first two games of the Jacksonville series and it paid off in Game 3.

They left one of their pitchers home.

Mitch Talbot didn't go with the team to Jacksonville and spent the two days golfing, relaxing and preparing for Saturday's game.

It must have worked. Talbot threw a five-hit shutout, struck out a Biscuits-record 14 and walked none in Montgomery's 2-0 sweep-sealing win.

It ended a semi-vacation for Talbot, who had spent the two previous days here while his teammates sweated out two wins over the Suns.

"I would have liked to have been there, but with the bus ride back and pitching the next day, they thought it would be better if I stayed back," Talbot said Saturday. "I'd have been going down there to just sit and watch."

Talbot got his golf in, but he also got his work. The Devil Rays have a daily schedule for their starting pitchers. Montgomery's coaches trusted Talbot to keep the schedule while they weren't there.

"I've been golfing a lot," Talbot said, "but I came up here and threw against the (outfield) wall to get my throwing in."

Slip 'n Sliding away

The Biscuits pulled out their alcohol again Saturday after sweeping the Jacksonville Suns.

Three sights greatly amused me during their multiple champagne sprays, water cooler dumps and general revelry:

1) Gabriel Martinez was in semi-sprint mode with a cooler on his way toward a coach. Martinez took a corner a little too quickly and, on the wet plastic that was covering the carpet, busted his butt. The team, which had been chanting the name of the coach, soon switched to chanting Gaby's and doused him instead. Gaby did the honorable thing -- and turned the cooler on himself.

2) Mike Prochaska made a gruesome display on a stretch of the plastic that some players used as a makeshift clubhouse Slip 'n Slide. He did the worm, full gyrations and all, across the full distance of the plastic. It wasn't a pretty sight.

3) Ryan Christianson, after each slide, walked the length of it spreading more water from a cooler to lubricate it for the next passenger. He had the look of a Spring Break wet T-shirt judge.

Mayor Bobby Bright spoke to the team before the full force of the celebrating started. He said he'll pay Martinez his $1,000 for hitting a train with a home run before the Biscuits' home game Thursday with Huntsville.

Oh, I have a fourth amusing sight ...
4) Bright had a frightful quiver just after he finished speaking and Justin Ruggiano came toward him with a cup. Ruggiano went to dump the cup on Bright, who was in dress clothes and tie but was on the plastic and in the free-fire zone. The cup was empty.

(I was again a victim, pulled into the fray by a demonic-looking Chairon Isenia. This time, they added shaving cream to the liquids. I'll be washing clothes tonight. I thought they'd wait until they won the championship for another spraying, if they win.)

Durham coaches fired

The Devil Rays fired the entire coaching staff at Class AAA Durham, the team announced to Tampa Bay-area media Saturday.

Manager John Tamargo, coaches Joe Coleman and Richie Hebner, and even trainer Tom Tisdale won't be back with the Bulls. Tampa Bay also fired minor-league pitching coordinator Jerry Nyman and three major-league scouts.

The Durham firings could give Montgomery's staff an opening to move up. Manager Charlie Montoyo has been with the Biscuits for all three years, while coaches Mako Oliveras and Xavier Hernandez are in their second years here.

Durham had a stressful season with Delmon Young's bat throw, Elijah Dukes' usual shenanigans (multiple suspensions and ejections) and even Tamargo, who was suspended 10 games for bumping an umpire.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Sonnanstine in clear

Andy Sonnanstine, tonight's starting pitcher for the Biscuits, won't have a pitch count hold him back.

The Devil Rays have cleared Sonnanstine to throw as long as he's effective, leaving it up to Biscuits manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Xavier Hernandez to decide when to pull him.

Sonnanstine led all of minor-league baseball with four shutouts this year, all within a nine-start win streak. Concerned over his workload, the Devil Rays put the clamps down and Sonnanstine hasn't thrown more than seven innings in any start since the streak ended.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Game 1 at Jacksonville

Biscuits win 4-3 with a four-run rally in the seventh and some gutsy pitching.

Spike Lundberg held up his end of the deal -- see today's earlier post -- with a season-high 11 strikeouts and shutout pitching for six innings. In the seventh, Michael Coleman led off with a homer to make it 3-1.

Two outs later, the Biscuits went single-double-walk-walk to make it 3-2. Then, Justin Ruggiano haunted his old team. Ruggiano, who came to the Biscuits from the Suns in July, hit a ground-rule double to left that brought home two runs and gave Montgomery the lead.

Montgomery starter Jeff Niemann gave up three runs in the first three innings, capped by a two-run homer by Tydus Meadows, then rolled. He left after 6 2/3 innings. Jacksonville, following that home run, managed only two more hits.

Suns' Lundberg confident

In today's Times-Union, Jacksonville pitcher Spike Lundberg said the Suns' season, despite a top-notch record, is "not done yet." Jacksonville hosts the Biscuits tonight to start a best-of-five playoff series.

Other notable quotes from Lundberg ...

On the Biscuits' sweep last month in Jacksonville: "Plus they came in here the last series and took care of business. We're looking forward to payback. They played well, and we played probably our worst series of the season."

On his loss to Montgomery in last month's series: "That was their best game against me this year after I had beaten them three times. But I'm still confident going into this series. It's not a matter of revenge. It's a matter of getting the first win for the team. We want to set the tone in this series in the first game. ..."

Lundberg was the Southern League's top pitcher this season. The 29-year-old finished 15-2 with a league-leading 2.27 ERA. He starts against Jeff Niemann tonight.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Riggans, Salas hit bigs

The Devil Rays gave catcher Shawn Riggans and pitcher Juan Salas the call today. Both deserve it.

Riggans has answered the main question about him the last two years -- he's durable and can stay healthy. He's hit, still plays defense and (stunningly) has shown some speed. I would have imagined pink uniforms for the Biscuits before I could have envisioned Riggans hitting ~two~ triples in a season.

Riggans has also been one of the most affable players to roll through Riverwalk Stadium, period. He called me last fall after a hurricane rolled through his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood because an Alabama Power crew from Montgomery had been the one to turn the power back on. He wanted to extend his thanks.

Salas didn't give up an earned run with Montgomery this year, moved up to Durham and showed enough that his next pitch will be in a Tampa Bay uniform. Salas' biggest frustration may have been the language barrier when I tried to interview him. We needed a translator whenever I needed more than a sentence or two.

Salas is 27 years old, so the Rays needed to get a look at him now to see if he's worth keeping. He has a natural cut fastball and, I'm told, was trying to make it cut with Durham and it didn't have the same effect.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Stokes up to Devil Rays

Pitcher Brian Stokes, who was with the Biscuits last season, is headed to Tampa Bay. He'll make his major-league debut Sunday.

Super soaker

I tried to stay away from the spray, slip in and grab my quote or three, slip out and go write my story. I tried to keep a low profile and slyly survey the scene for Saturday's story, make a quick observation for history's sake. I tried.

Unfortunately, a few players saw me meekly peeking around into the clubhouse Friday after the Biscuits clinched a playoff berth with a 5-4 win over Mississippi. I paid the price.

They started inviting me to have a closer, first-hand look as they sprayed champagne and other "social sodas" around in celebration. I said no. They started chanting my name and beckoning me to see the mess they were making. I declined.

Ryan Christianson, with a paternal look in his eye, walked out of the clubhouse to where I was, safely sheltered in an area unprotected by plastic and off-limits to their party, and never said a word. Like a gentle dentist guiding a patient to the drill, he put one hand on my elbow and pointed the other, which had a beverage in it, toward the door.

I figured it would come to this. The reporter always gets dragged into the celebration, whether he's willing or not. I had considered my options: a) I could acquiese and take it, perhaps gaining a shred or two of respect, and getting it out of the way; b) I could resist and be thrown into the spray, thus losing what little reputation I have; or c) I could resist, the players would give up, and I'd have no respect whatsoever.

I chose A.

Just as I was about to reach the door, ending my walk of the Green Mile, I was still clutching my trusty notepad, board and scorebook. Michael Coleman mentioned that I might want to leave those outside and spare permanent damage. I obliged.

Soon, I was on the plastic and a target. My clothes may recover from the drenching of a lot of "social sodas" and such. I didn't drink any of it, took my soaking and went on with life. I dried off what little I could, gathered my quotes and returned to the press box in wet shirt and shorts.

I typed my story while starting to shiver from the cold. I think I made deadline.

I've never been through that type of situation before, but I'll be better prepared next time. I had a change of clothes, at my hotel a mile from the stadium. After I sent my story, I scurried back to change and took my wet clothes to my hero of the night, Trustmark Park's visiting clubhouse manager who offered to wash them.

Maybe next time for the Biscuits will be in two weeks, when the Southern League championship is decided.

See you there, Biscuits. I'll bring the rain coat.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Delmon sounding good

Delmon Young on his hot start, specifically White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's comment that he's going to be in the Hall of Fame ...


"I'm not going to take any comments like that seriously right now," Young said before his first home game at Tropicana Field. "My career could easily change over the course of the season. A lot of guys have a great year, then come back the next couple of years and struggle. ... I could easily go 0-for-50 and I could be batting .100, so I'm not even really worried about that. I'm just trying to get on base, let the guys drive me in or try to drive in some runs so we can get some victories."

That sounds like the Delmon I talked to in spring training, which is a very good sign.

In case of a tie

Since Montgomery could still tie Jacksonville or Mobile for the South Division title, the Southern League laid out the tiebreaker scenario Friday.

If the Biscuits tie Mobile, there will be a one-game playoff Wednesday in Mobile. The winner drives to Jacksonville and starts the best-of-five playoff series Thursday.

If the Biscuits tie Jacksonville, there will be a one-game playoff Wednesday in Montgomery. No matter who wins, the Biscuits and Suns will start their playoff series Thursday in Jacksonville. The teams one-game playoff would decide only who would host Games 4 and 5, if necessary.

Jacksonville hosts the first two games of the playoff series next Thursday and Friday. Mobile/Montgomery hosts Game 3 next Saturday.

I don't know how much effort the Suns would put into a one-game showdown. They're already going to the playoffs. If they win, Games 4 and 5 will probably be a day-night doubleheader on Sept. 11 because the NFL's Jaguars are home Sept. 10. Why waste a top-flight pitcher in the one-game showdown?