Over the last 23 years, the Winnipeg Goldeyes have enjoyed a lot of success, but 2016 may have been the most exciting season of them all.
The campaign began on May 19th with an 8-1 road win over the Joplin Blasters. In the top of the third, catcher Tanner Murphy hit the Goldeyes’ first home run of the season. Centre fielder Reggie Abercrombie and second baseman Casio Grider also homered, while veteran starting pitcher Mikey O’Brien earned credit for the first complete game on Opening Night in franchise history. The win sparked a 6-4 opening road trip that included a series victory against the defending champion Laredo Lemurs. Winnipeg and Laredo would battle for the American Association wild card all summer.
On May 30th, the Goldeyes won their home opener in front of 7,076 fans at Shaw Park. Once again, O’Brien led the way as the Goldeyes beat the Sioux Falls Canaries 3-2. O’Brien and fellow right-hander Edwin Carl each won 10 games in 2016, and were the first Goldeyes to reach double digit wins since 2014.
The starting rotation continued to shine on June 3rd. Facing the Lincoln Saltdogs, third-year left-hander Kyle Anderson carried a perfect game into the seventh inning before finishing the night with a complete game two-hitter at home. The nine-inning masterpiece was Anderson’s first career complete game as a professional. Anderson posted a 3.44 ERA in 73.1 innings, and helped fill nearly every role on the team’s pitching staff.
In the rubber match of the series against Lincoln, the Goldeyes rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 6-5 win. After scoring the tying run on a two-out balk, new shortstop Maikol Gonzalez lined a single to left that won the game. One of the most accomplished players in the American Association, Gonzalez was acquired in an off-season trade and went on to finish second in the league in stolen bases (31), second in walks (75), and tied for sixth in runs scored (72). Gonzalez was also the lone Goldeye to start all 100 games during the regular season.
On June 7th at Sioux City, Rick Forney managed his 1,000th game in a Goldeyes’ uniform. Carl helped ensure the milestone night was a memorable one. The right-hander held the Explorers, who ranked second in the league in team batting average, to one earned run over seven innings in an 11-1 rout.
Five days later, the Goldeyes rallied in the top of the ninth inning to beat the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks at Newman Outdoor Field. Facing RedHawks’ ace Tyler Herron–who was purchased by the New York Mets shortly after this series–Abercrombie hit a game-tying double. First baseman Jacob Rogers knocked in the go-ahead run with a double off of veteran closer Dan Sattler. Carl started and struck out 10 in a no-decision. Combined with his effort against Sioux City, Carl was named the American Association’s Pitcher of the Week. The comeback allowed Winnipeg to draw a split of the critical four-game series.
The Goldeyes faced the St. Paul Saints for the first time on June 17th at Shaw Park. It would be the first of 17 regular season matchups between the division rivals. The Saints won a franchise-best 74 games in 2015 and once again proved themselves a force in the American Association North. The Saints swept the initial three-game series to push Winnipeg six and a half games out of first place.
The Goldeyes bounced back, however, winning two of three against the Saltdogs on the road. The Goldeyes won the series-opener 14-1, and captured the rubber match of the series when catcher Carlton Tanabe snuffed out a Lincoln rally in the bottom of the ninth by picking off a runner at first for the final out. Tanabe led all American Association backstops with 82 games played at the position. Only one other catcher reached even 70 games played.
After the series in Lincoln, the Goldeyes quickly reacquainted themselves with the Saints. The Saints took the first two games in the four-game set with each contest decided by one run. It ran the Saints’ head-to-head winning streak against the Goldeyes to 11 games dating back to July of 2015. The balance seemed to shift, though, when the Goldeyes outlasted the Saints in a 9-6, 12-inning victory on June 26th. After a missed call allowed the Saints to score the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Goldeyes broke through with a four-run top of the 12th, highlighted by homers from Abercrombie and Rogers.
In the series finale, left-hander Kevin McGovern delivered a brilliant eight-inning performance that helped rest a Goldeyes’ bullpen that had pitched 13.2 combined innings the previous two nights. McGovern struck out seven and held off a late charge by the Saints in the bottom of the eighth. Anderson filled in as closer in the ninth and worked a one-two-three frame to notch his first save of the year.
The Goldeyes then returned home for six games against Gary SouthShore and Sioux Falls. On Canada Day, O’Brien pitched the first nine-inning complete game of his professional career in an 8-1 win over the Canaries. The Canaries mounted late rallies in the next two games to win the series. The 2-4 homestand dropped the Goldeyes’ below .500 at 21-22 with a lengthy road trip on the horizon.
Without a travel day, the Goldeyes bussed approximately 15 hours to US Steel Yard in Gary, Indiana. Because it was Independence Day in the United States, the series-opener also had an earlier start time. Despite the long travel and having less time to prepare for the game, the Goldeyes squeaked out a 2-1 win in 15 innings over the RailCats that seemingly marked the turning point of the season. Right-hander Duke von Schamann led the way with eight terrific innings of one-run ball. Outfielder David Rohm had the go-ahead base hit in the 15th, while rookie right-hander Brandon Shimo slammed the door with a double play ball to pick up the save.
von Schamann proved one of the most reliable starters in the American Association, winning eight games and walking just 23 batters in 116.1 innings. von Schamann was one of four Goldeyes’ starters to reach 100.0 or more innings pitched, something a Goldeyes’ rotation had not accomplished since 2008. The sidearm throwing Shimo reached career-highs in innings (50.2) and strikeouts (44) while recording more than three outs on 13 occasions.
Left-hander Ethan Carnes pitched six shutout innings the following night to help the Goldeyes win the series in Gary. Right-hander Robert Tasin, who was a college teammate of Carnes at the University of Oklahoma and had signed with Winnipeg earlier that afternoon, pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the save. Carnes was 6-3 in 13 starts for Winnipeg after being claimed off waivers from the Texas AirHogs in June.
The RailCats won the series finale to avoid getting swept in their home ballpark, but the Goldeyes took three of four on the road at Sioux Falls Stadium. Prior to the opener against the Canaries, the Goldeyes acquired veteran outfielder Willie Cabrera from Joplin. Cabrera made an immediate impact, collecting three hits in his debut, and going 8-for-17 in the four-game series. Cabrera finished second in the American Association with 77 RBI, including 34 in 45 contests following the trade.
The July series in Sioux Falls also marked a turning point for the Goldeyes’ offence as a whole. Winnipeg was sixth in the American Association in runs scored upon their arrival at “The Birdcage.” From Cabrera’s debut through the end of the regular season, the Goldeyes averaged an amazing 6.7 runs per game and wound up leading the league in runs for the entire year. The Goldeyes also homered 55 times in their final 54 games after totaling 30 home runs in their first 46. Grider hit a three-run homer in three consecutive games during the Sioux Falls series, and was arguably the best second baseman in the American Association. The second-year Goldeye was tied for eighth in the league with 68 RBI, stole 22 bases, and was second with a .983 fielding percentage at his position.
The Goldeyes backed up the monster road trip with a 6-2 homestand against three playoff contenders. On July 13th, returning outfielder Adam Heisler’s grand slam paved the way to a 17-3 win against Sioux City. Heisler also drew four walks, helping the Goldeyes tie a franchise record with 14 free passes. It had been more than 20 years since the Goldeyes drew that many walks in one game. Patience may have played an even bigger role than power did in the Goldeyes’ offensive success. By season’s end, the Goldeyes shattered the American Association record for team walks with 462. The previous mark of 438 was set by the RailCats in 2012, while the Goldeyes’ own team record had been 387 in 2011.
For Heisler, it was another well-balanced year. An all-star in 2015, Heisler hit .300 during his second season in Winnipeg, and set career-highs in home runs (eight) and RBI (49). Heisler was also eighth in the American Association with 27 stolen bases, and delivered some of Winnipeg’s biggest hits during the postseason.
The following night, Abercrombie became the American Association’s all-time leader in home runs, hitting a pair against the Explorers at Shaw Park. They were Abercrombie’s 87th and 88th in the league which surpassed former Fort Worth Cats’ great John Allen for the record. It was Abercrombie’s third year in Winnipeg, and the former Major Leaguer compiled one of the best all-around seasons in team history. Abercrombie tied for third in the American Association in home runs (20) and tied for eighth in RBI (68). He also duplicated the feat of having 20-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases (21) in the same season. Abercrombie was the first to earn the distinction in 2010 while playing for Sioux Falls, and no other American Association player did it again until Abercrombie and Denis Phipps of Laredo both pulled it off in 2016.
For all of the records and accolades, Abercrombie’s greatest achievement may have been receiving the inaugural Scott Miller/Brian Rose Man of the Year Award for his contributions off the field throghout the Winnipeg community.
The offence remained in high gear during a 23-run performance over the RailCats on July 17th. The Goldeyes hit a season-high six home runs in the victory, and fell one run shy of the team’s 19-year-old record for runs in one game.
The Saints were up next, and the Goldeyes continued to change their fortunes against the reigning division champions. In the first of three scheduled games, McGovern fanned 11 hitters en route to the win on July 18th. The following night, Carl led three Winnipeg hurlers in a combined one-hitter over the Saints’ mighty lineup. In total, the pitching staff combined for a staggering 10 games in which they allowed three hits or less. Seven of those performances were either one-hitters or two-hitters.
McGovern and Carl both put dents into the Goldeyes’ record books at the end of the year. McGovern ranked second in the American Association with 125 strikeouts which also sit third all-time on the Goldeyes’ single-season list. Carl’s 115 punchouts were good for fifth in the league and are now sixth in the Goldeyes’ annals. McGovern was also 12th in the league with a 3.56 ERA and would later dominate in two of the biggest wins of the year.
The July 20th series finale was suspended due to rain with the Saints leading 3-0 in the second. It would be nearly a month before the game was completed, but for the Goldeyes, the wait would be well worth it.
As the all-star break approached, the Goldeyes split a six-game road trip at Kansas City and Fargo-Moorhead. In the rubber match against the RedHawks, Carnes and left-hander Eric Eadington combined on a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 win. Eadington was signed during the opening road trip and was perhaps the most electric reliever in the American Association. A former Dodgers’ farmhand with Double-A experience, Eadington struck out 66 batters in just 47.0 innings and held left-handed batters to a .125 average (7-for-56).
The Goldeyes came home for a three-game series against the T-Bones that would carry them into the break. In the opener, Winnipeg yanked out a bizarre 16-15 win in 11 innings. The Goldeyes led by as many as five runs early, trailed by as many as six runs late, and eventually won on a bases loaded, bloop single to right from Rogers. The game took four hours and 43 minutes to complete, and even included a sprinkler delay shortly before Rogers’ game-winner. Cameron McVey shut down Kansas City for three and one-third innings in what was his longest outing of the year. McVey posted a 3.41 ERA and struck out 41 in 37.0 frames. It was the fourth straight year in which McVey averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Meanwhile, Rogers was a major part of the Goldeyes’ record-setting patience, finishing tied for fifth in the league in walks (56) which led to an outstanding .407 on-base percentage. Rogers was also second in fielding percentage among the league’s first basemen (.994), and won a professional championship for a third consecutive year.
The resilient Goldeyes engineered another dramatic comeback in the second game of the T-Bones series, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 5-4. Rookie infielder Ridge Hoopii-Haslam drew a two-out, bases loaded walk to tie the game, while Tanabe singled up the middle on an 0-2 count to drive in the winning run. Hoopii-Haslam was lauded throughout the year for his versatility and team-first attitude. The Hawaiian native played infield, outfield, pitched on two occasions, and knocked in 30 runs over his final 42 games.
On July 31st, the Goldeyes beat the T-Bones again to complete their first sweep of the year. Carl and Eadington combined on a two-hit shutout with Eadington recording a nine-out save in the 2-0 win. The Goldeyes specialized in tight games all year with 59 of their 100 regular season contests decided by three runs or less. The experience proved invaluable with seven of the club’s 10 playoff games decided by two or fewer runs.
The American Association All-Star Game took place on August 2nd at CHS Field. Rohm and Cabrera represented the Goldeyes well with Rohm taking home MVP honours. The duo would also be named to the league’s Postseason All-Star Team in September. Rohm was quite possibly the most consistent hitter in the American Association, finishing fourth in batting average (.339), tied for fifth in RBI (71), and posting a pair of career-best 13-game hitting streaks.
The Goldeyes came out of the all-star break riding their first four-game winning streak of the year and continued to charge into the month of August.
For a second time in a month, Winnipeg made the most of a long trip to Gary, Indiana. This time, the Goldeyes pulled off their first ever four-game sweep at US Steel Yard since the ballpark opened in 2003. In the second game, O’Brien made his first relief appearance of the year, helping the Goldeyes beat the RailCats in extra innings and earning his 50th career win in the process. The next night, McGovern pitched a complete game, two-hitter, while Carl held the RailCats to two hits over seven innings in the series finale.
The Goldeyes then took the first two of a three-game set at Sioux Falls to extend their winning streak to 10 games. The streak tied for the second longest in team history and came to an end on August 10th when the Canaries bested the Goldeyes in an afternoon contest.
Winnipeg’s remaining schedule was filled with nothing but playoff contenders, beginning with a nine-game homestand against Wichita and St. Paul. The Wingnuts and Saints finish tied for the best record in the American Association. After splitting four games against the Wingnuts, the Saints rolled into town with the Goldeyes sitting seven and a half games out of first place.
The five-game series included the continuation of the game suspended on July 20th, and a series-opening rainout condesned the five matches into a 45-hour window. On August 16th, Winnipeg and St. Paul picked up where they left off in July in what turned out to be one of the most memorable regular season games in recent Goldeyes’ history. Already leading 3-0, the Saints went on to build a 9-1 advantage in the sixth inning. The Goldeyes then gave new meaning to the word “resilient,” chipping away at the deficit and eventually tying the game with a five-run bottom of the eighth against former Major Leaguers Mark Hamburger and Caleb Thielbar. Josh Romanski won the game in the bottom of the 10th, hitting a monster two-run home run down the right field line off of Thielbar.
In what was only his third year as a position player at the professional level, Romanski hit .305 with nine home runs and 64 RBI. The former pitcher drew 60 walks and led all American Association left-handed hitters with a .356 average against lefty pitchers.
The Goldeyes eventually won four of the five games against the Saints, highlighted by stellar performances from McGovern and O’Brien. McGovern tossed a complete game, two-hit shutout in the opener of a double header on August 17th. O’Brien limited the Saints to two hits over seven innings in the afternoon series finale on August 18th. While the Saints held on to win the North Division, this series once again proved the Goldeyes were as formidable as any team in the league.
The Goldeyes fell 16-1 at Sioux City on August 19th before dropping a tight, 3-1 decision the following evening. Hoping to avoid the sweep, McGovern stepped up and took the ball on three days of rest. The left-hander held the Explorers to just one hit over seven scoreless innings to help the Goldeyes win. Coupled with his shutout over the Saints four days earlier, McGovern garnered Pitcher of the Week honours.
The grueling schedule continued, and the Goldeyes held their own with a 4-6 mark against the RedHawks, Explorers, and Saints. On August 31st, Wes Darvill hit a two-out, two-run double in the top of the ninth off Hamburger at CHS Field in a 3-2, come-from-behind win. Canadian-born, Darvill’s .958 fielding percentage ranked third among American Association third basemen. Darvill was also a perfect 18-for-18 in stolen base attempts and collected his 500th career base hit on July 22nd at Kansas City.
The Goldeyes arrived home for their final four games of the regular season needing to match the Lemurs during that stretch to clinch the American Association wild card. Winnipeg’s opponent for the final series was arch rival Fargo-Moorhead who had hopes of spoiling the Goldeyes’ playoff chances.
After a convincing 16-6 win in the first game of the series, the Goldeyes rallied from an early 6-0 deficit on September 3rd to beat RedHawks’ stalwart pitcher Tyler Alexander. A rainout the following afternoon forced a Labour Day double header on the final day of the regular season. With afternoon starts across the league, the Goldeyes needed either one win or one Lemurs loss to punch their ticket to the playoffs. Taking no chances, the team seized the moment, and McGovern once again led the way. Backed by Abercrombie’s 20th home run of the year, McGovern threw a complete game two-hitter in front of a standing room only crowd of 7,787.
While there was still much work to be done, the 18th playoff berth in the team’s 23-year history was worthy of celebration. 73 of the Goldeyes’ 100 regular season games were against clubs with winning records, including each of their final 26. 18 of those final 26 were against fellow playoff teams with the remaining eight against the always challenging RedHawks. Following the 21-22 start, the Goldeyes were 37-20 (.649) the rest of the way, and after getting swept by the Saints in June, the Goldeyes never lost more than two games in a row.
Fittingly, after 17 bouts in the regular season, the Goldeyes drew the Saints in the American Association Division Series. It was the first postseason meeting between the teams since an epic five-game series in 2011. The 2016 edition proved every bit as exciting.
Game One featured two veterans in O’Brien and Hamburger, each of whom won 10-plus games in the regular season. In a marvelous pitcher’s duel, the Saints defeated the Goldeyes 1-0, scoring the lone run on a sacrifice fly in the top of the third. The Goldeyes made things interesting in the ninth, loading the bases with one out before all-star closer Ryan Rodebaugh escaped the jam.
The Goldeyes evened the series the next night. Although they fell behind 1-0 in the top of the first, Winnipeg stormed back with six runs in the bottom half and rode the big inning to a 9-7 victory. Rohm had four hits in the game, while Carl struck out seven over five innings to earn the win. Former Major Leaguer Winston Abreu fanned two in the ninth to pick up the save. Abreu and fellow reliever Victor Capellan both joined the club late in the season and provided monumental contributions out of the bullpen during the playoffs.
When the series shifted to CHS Field, McGovern was masterful in Game Three, striking out nine over seven shutout innings. Romanski’s two-run single in the top of the fifth gave Winnipeg a 2-0 lead, but the Saints rallied for two runs in the eighth inning to tie the score, and then won it in the ninth on a walk-off home run from Tony Thomas.
For the Goldeyes to advance to the American Association Championship Series, they would have to find a way to beat the Saints twice in a row at CHS Field. Since the new ballpark opened in 2015, the Saints owned a .720 winning percentage at home.
Game Four was filled with plenty of tension. The Saints took an early 1-0 lead, but von Schamann maneuvered his way out of several jams to keep the Goldeyes hopes alive. The Goldeyes posted one of their more diverse rallies of the year with a four-run top of the fourth. Abercrombie tied the game with a single to centre before the go-ahead run scored on a double play ball. With Abercrombie now on third and Saints’ pitcher Kody Knaus pitching from the windup, the Goldeyes’ centre fielder executed a straight steal of home, dashing for the plate with a headfirst slide. Seconds later, Grider crushed a solo home run to left-centre on the very next pitch.
The Saints came right back with three runs in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game, leading Forney to make two of his most unorthodox moves of the year. First, Carl was summoned from the bullpen for the first time all season and was only two days removed from his Game Two start in which he threw 104 pitches. With runners on first and second and no outs, Carl recorded two key outs to quiet down some of St. Paul’s momentum. Next, Eadington was brought in to get the final out and keep the game tied. It was the earliest Eadington had been used at any point in the season, and the hard-throwing lefty totaled two and one-third scoreless before turning the ball over to Capellan.
Capellan was just as dominant, striking out five in two shutout innings. With the game still tied at 4-4 in the top of the ninth, the Goldeyes loaded the bases with two outs against Rodebaugh with Gonzalez at the plate. On the seventh pitch of the at bat, the Goldeyes’ shortstop laid off a full-count pitch down and away to force in the lead run. The Goldeyes had drawn a league-record 462 walks in the regular season, with Gonzalez accounting for 75 of them, and Gonzalez’s free pass in Game Four was the biggest of them all. Abreu shut the door in the bottom of the ninth, forcing a decisive Game Five on September 12th.
Both teams went back to their Game One starters in O’Brien and Hamburger. Due to a rainout the night of the originally scheduled series-opener, both were pitching on three days of rest. Heisler jumpstarted the offence, hitting a double off the centre field wall on Hamburger’s pitch of the night. Cabrera drove in Heisler with a single and the Goldeyes never relinquished the lead. Heisler, Gonzalez, and Abercrombie helped produce two more runs in the third while O’Brien and the pitching staff took care of the rest. O’Brien struck out seven in seven shutout frames. Capellan struck out the side in the eighth, and Abreu did the same in the ninth. Abreu fanned 2015 league MVP Vince DiFazio as the tying run at the plate for the final out. It was the Goldeyes’ first Game Five victory since 2003 and their first such win on the road since 2002.
The Goldeyes were on to the American Association Championship Series and their ninth overall league final since returning to Winnipeg in 1994. Their final hurdle would be the Wichita Wingnuts, the same club Winnipeg beat for their championship in 2012.
The Goldeyes took Game One at Shaw Park behind timely hitting and a strong performance from Carl. Rohm had three more hits while Romanski homered and drove in two. Carl pitched six and one-third scoreless as the pitching staff combined on a four-hit shutout over a Wingnuts’ lineup that led the American Association in batting average. The 5-0 win was the Goldeyes’ first postseason shutout since 2009.
Wichita’s bats came alive the next night in a 9-2 win that evened the series. In Game Three, the Wingnuts scored five runs in the bottom of the first and held off the Goldeyes for a 7-5 win that pushed Winnipeg to the brink of elimination for a second straight week. Much like the Saints, the Wingnuts protect their home field as well as anyone in the league. Wichita’s .652 home winning percentage is the best in American Association history, but the Goldeyes had already proven earlier in the postseason that they could win on the road with everything on the line.
Like Wichita had done the previous night, the Goldeyes scored early and often in the opening inning of Game Four. Gonzalez and Abercrombie each hit home runs while Darvill chipped in a two-out RBI single. Pitching on short rest, Carl made the lead stand up with seven strikeouts over five-plus innings. Romanski’s RBI single in the fifth proved large as the Wingnuts eventually pulled within 5-4. Capellan and Eadington combined for two and one-third innings in relief of Carl before turning the ball over to Abreu. Abreu had perhaps his most dominant outing of the year, striking out five batters in a five-out save to nail down the win and even the Championship Series. With the tying run on first, Abreu struck out league batting champion Matt Chavez for the final out. It was the third elimination game victory for Winnipeg in eight days, and it left the team just one win away from its third ever championship.
Everything seemed to break right for the Goldeyes in the winner-take-all Game Five. Abercrombie laced a two-run double to right-centre in the top of the first and the Goldeyes never stopped hitting. Heisler and Cabrera added run-scoring hits in the second to help support McGovern who was pitching on three days of rest. McGovern tossed six-plus innings and did not allow a run until the seventh. Abercrombie belted a pair of two-run homers in the seventh and eighth, and set a Goldeyes’ postseason single-game record with seven total RBI. Heisler and Cabrera each finished the night with four base hits, while Grider had three hits and scored three runs. Capellan and Eadington combined for two innings of relief without allowing an earned run. In the bottom of the ninth, Abreu struck out two, including former Major Leaguer Brent Clevlen for the championship-clinching out.
Abreu lifted his hands high above his head and the ultimate celebration was underway. It was as tough a road to a championship as a team could experience. The Goldeyes were one game under .500 as late as July 4th, they clinched their playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, and then had to win four playoff elimination games on the road against a pair of teams that tied for the best record in the league. But each and every time the Goldeyes needed to win, they found a way to do so.
In the coming weeks and months, the preparation for the Goldeyes to defend their title will be underway, and the focus will shift to 2017. But as was the case in 1994 and 2012, it will be a happy off-season for the Goldeyes and all of their loyal fans knowing that Winnipeg was the only team to win the final game of the year.