Valley Press Staff Writer
LANCASTER — Back in April, nobody in America would have been surprised if you predicted the JetHawks to win the California League title.
In fact, it was tougher to find someone who didn’t think another pennant would fly at The Hangar, especially given the extravagant amount of talent that arrived in Lancaster.
When the JetHawks opened the season with an 8-2 win over Lake Elsinore on April 3, they boasted a roster than had nine of the Astros’ top 20 prospects, a group that included the previous two No. 1 overall picks in Carlos Correa and Mark Appel.
Yet as Lancaster took the field Monday night for Game 5 of the California League Championship Series against Visalia, only eight players remained from that star-studded roster.
“Going into these playoffs, I feel like nobody gave us a chance,” said Lancaster starter Lance McCullers, one of the eight holdovers from Opening Day. “It was like, ‘They can’t do it or they’re not as good as they were in the first half or they’re not playing good at the end of the year,’ but this group of guys all wanted the same thing.
“We had one heartbeat and we played our (butts) off this series. This means everything.”
Lancaster’s second California League championship, which came on the two-year anniversary of its first, capped off a season in which there was seemingly never a boring day at the park.
Along the way, there were plenty of highs for the JetHawks.
While a first-half South Division title and first-half franchise-record for wins (44) come to mind, the JetHawks also made national news on May 13 when Josh Hader, J.D. Osborne and Daniel Minor combined to throw a no-hitter against Bakersfield.
Hader, who would eventually become the first Lancaster thrower to win the California League Pitcher of the Year award, was a bright spot as he went 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA before being promoted to Double-A in early August.
Hader was one of six JetHawks selected to the California-Carolina League All-Star Game in Delaware and was joined by Roberto Peña, Tony Kemp, Correa, Teoscar Hernandez and Kyle Westwood.
There were other memorable individual performances at The Hangar, most notably on June 6 when Dan Gulbransen hit for the first cycle of his career. The 23-year-old outfielder would retire from baseball a little over a month later, instead choosing to go back to school and get his degree.
Yet while there were plenty of unforgettable days around the JetHawks, some memories weren’t for the best.
When Correa broke his right fibula on June 21 while sliding into third base, a dark cloud seemed to loom over Lancaster for the next few weeks.
Appel also likely won’t have fond memories of Lancaster as the former No. 1 overall pick struggled with injuries and consistency while posting 9.74 ERA. He was promoted to Double-A in late July.
With most their top players gone, the JetHawks slogged their way to the end of the regular season, going a dismal 12-18 over the final month. The sluggish end raised questions about whether or not Lancaster would even win a playoff series, much less a league title.
Yet after getting swept by Inland Empire to end the regular season, Lancaster returned the favor to the 66ers in the South Division Finals.
That set up a date with Visalia in the California League Championship Series, the Rawhide looking for the first title since 1978.
After losing Game 1 on a walk-off play at the plate, McCullers set the tone in a Game 2 win by throwing six shutout innings, his best outing of a rollercoaster season.
“You have to realize that you can be subpar or bad or whatever you want to call it,” McCullers said. “But there’s going to be a time when your team needs you.
“In Game 2, I knew my team needed me. I was glad to do it for the guys.”
Rio Ruiz provided the drama in Game 3 with a walk-off homer in the 10th inning before the JetHawks were crushed 11-3 in Game 4.
That set up a winner-take-all Game 5, a tilt the JetHawks seemed destined to win when Correa flew in Monday morning from Florida, surprising the clubhouse and delivering a monumental emotional boost.
“That just shows the kind of guy he is,” said Ruiz, who collected three hits in Game 5’s 10-2 rout. “He always kept an eye on us.”
Linares, who referred to Correa as an extra coach, added: “I can’t say enough about what it means that he came out here.”
Ruiz and starter Vince Velasquez are headed to the Arizona Fall League, a breeding ground for top prospects. They will be joined by Appel, Mitchell Lambson and Tyson Perez, all of whom wore a Lancaster uniform this season.
Most of the players who celebrated in Lancaster clubhouse Monday night will return in April, a group that will likely be led by Brett Phillips, Tyler White and Kent Emanuel.
One person who might not return to The Hangar is Linares. With an opening at Double-A Corpus Christi, the third-year manager might be in line for a promotion.
“I’ve loved my time in Lancaster,” Linares said. “I’ve grown as a manager and as a person.
“If I have to come back, I wouldn’t think twice. I wouldn’t go anywhere else but up.”
Led by the 19-year-old Correa, Lancaster’s roster in April expected nothing less than a league title.
Amidst a delirious crowd Monday night at The Hangar, the JetHawks spilled out of the dugout when Minor sealed the win with a strikeout.
As Correa gingerly bounced around with his teammate, careful not to put too much weight on his right leg, it was as if Lancaster’s season had come full circle.
Perhaps the JetHawks were destined to be California League champions all along.