We continue our series of minor league season recaps by celebrating a championship won by the Lancaster JetHawks. Houston’s High-A affiliate defeated the Modesto Nuts 3-2 Saturday night to earn their first ever California League crown. Lancaster has been a member of the Cal League for 17 seasons and have been aligned with the Astros since 2009.
Coming off a league-worst 55-85 record in 2011, the JetHawks went 74-66 in the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. Then the fun began as they sailed through Lake Elsinore, conquered High Desert and kicked the Nuts en route to the championship.
Already leading the championship series two games to none, Delino DeShields Jr. greeted Modesto starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa with a leadoff homer. Deshields started another rally in the JetHawks two-run third inning. Six innings later JetHawks reliever Kenny Long retired Dallas Tarleton on a grounder to first base to end the game and start the celebration. Winning the final game at home gave the 2,810 fans at “The Hangar” a chance to enjoy it that much more.
Deshields, who spent most of the season at Class-A Lexington before being promoted, scored five runs in the three-game sweep to win series MVP honors. It was the first championship for Deshields as well as manager Rodney Linares. The JetHawks skipper is in his sixth season with the Astros organization and his first at High-A Lancaster. Linares has also been named manager for the Mesa Solar Sox in the upcoming Arizona Fall League.
The season started slowly for the JetHawks as they lost their first four games. Linares knew his team could score runs, especially at the hitter-friendly Hangar, but would need to pitch better to contend. David Martinez and Tyson Perez would answer the call, winning nine games apiece on the season. Nick Tropeano further improved the rotation when he was promoted from Lexington. Tropeano went 6-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 12 starts after arriving in Lancaster. Twenty-one year-old righty Ruben Alaniz also contributed six wins and Bobby Doran won eight.
Kirk Clark and lefty Pat Urckfitz led the bullpen, tallying eight saves each. Another lefty, 2012 draft pick Kenny Long made an immediate impact as well. Long registered a 1.12 ERA, a 0.625 WHIP, and 18 strikeouts in 12 appearances covering eight innings. It will be interesting to see if Long can develop into more than a situational lefty. With those eye-popping numbers he is certain to get every opportunity.
On offense the JetHawks averaged a tick over six runs per game for the regular season. There were some impressive numbers put up by several players, but none more impressive than Domingo Santana. The outfielder acquired in the Hunter Pence trade hit .302/.385/.536 with 23 homers and 97 RBIs in his age 20 season. George Springer came close to Santana, hitting .316/.398/.557 and stealing 28 bases prior to being promoted to AA. Erik Castro, who was repeating the High-A level also had a monster year at the plate. Castro turns 25 in November and will be moving up the ladder next season. Telvin Nash hit 29 homeruns and continues to be an intriguing power prospect. His average is low and his strikeout rate is astronomical but Nash is still just 21 years old.
Looking forward to next year it’s hard to say whether or not the JetHawks will be able to battle for another championship. The system has been infused with plenty of talent through trades and the draft and some of that talent is certain to spend time in Lancaster in 2013. Pitching prospects have been known to skip Lancaster due to the hitter-friendly nature of the ballpark. So it’s hard to say exactly who will spend the bulk of their season there but I’m going to go ahead and throw a few names out there anyway.
2012 draftees Andrew Aplin, Nolan Fontana, Tyler Heineman, and Austin Elkins are a good bet to start the season at Lancaster. Aplin and Fontana may have abbreviated stays there as both have the potential to move quickly through the Astros system.
Astros minor league Pitcher of the Year Mike Foltynewicz and Mr. no-hitter Chris Devenski could see action in Lancaster or might just skip the level completely.
Congratulations again to the 2012 Lancaster JetHawks on their championship season. The Astros recently extended their contract with Lancaster through the 2014 season. Having a farm team in the Cal league bodes well for a team that is moving to the American League’s Western division. This could turn out to be a wonderful long-term relationship. Let’s hope this is just the first of many championships to come.