Now, the defending league champion Twins (39-27) will take on the Kingsport Mets (33-35) in the Appalachian League West Division baseball playoffs. The winner of the best-of-three series will advance to the championship series to take on the winner of the Princeton Rays and Bluefield Blue Jays.
Josh Widener, who went 3-1 in the regular season, will be the Twins starter tonight, while Willy Taveras, 7-1 in the regular season, will be on the mound for the Mets.
While the purpose of the rookie league is to develop players for the next level, Elizabethton manager Ray Smith sees winning as part of that development.
“You have to be a winning player, and that’s something we try to instill in these guys from day one,” Smith said. “You can develop your skills, but you want to develop the mental part of your game. You have to be a good team guy because this is a team game. The individual stats mean something, but when you’re in the playoffs, you have a good season and everybody on the club has a good year.”
The Twins went 5-4 against the Mets in the regular season, although both teams have moved up several players from the start of the season. Still, Kingsport manager Sean Ratliff made the playoffs a team goal.
“We are still playing and that was the goal from day one,” Ratliff said. “We knew the ballclub we had. To know we have another series, everybody is excited.”
Among the current rosters, Kingsport’s Luis Santana is among the league leaders with a .348 batting average. Mark Vientos ranked third in the league with 52 RBIs. For Elizabethton, Chris Williams had 51 RBIs. Alex Robles hit .297 and Lean Marrero sported a .283 average.
While the Twins are clearly the favorite, coming into the series with 10 wins in their last dozen games, Kingsport’s manager looks at their head-to-head matchups as a reason to be optimistic.
“We’ve had some good dogfights with those guys,” Ratliff said. “They’re a good ballclub and they play hard and play the right way. We’ve had some success against them, and they’ve had some success against us, so we’re expecting a good series.”
The statistics favor the Twins, who, in addition to sporting a better record, have history on their side. The K-Mets have won two Appy League championships (1988, 1995), while the city of Kingsport has seven championships overall, dating back to the 1944-45 seasons with the Kingsport Cherokees.
Now as then, Smith said the series will come down to fundamentals and the team which makes the fewest mistakes.
“The team that gives away the fewest freebies, that makes the routine plays, gets ahead on the count with the pitchers and (whose) hitters look for the good ball to hit, they will win,” Smith said. “You’re teaching them to play the same way, no matter who you’ve got. We will roll the dice and see what happens.”