Tthe Drillers came up disappointingly short in 2016. But there is no place for panic as the 2017 season is shaping up nicely with the return of players from the Dodgers’ postseason roster.
The Tulsa Drillers contingent sat down at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ chaplain breakfast during the baseball winter meetings and had one chair left open. In walks a gentleman who could have sat anywhere he wanted in this room.
“It was none other than Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts,” says Drillers general manager Mike Melega. “He asked if he could sit there and we said, “of course.” And we immediately began peppering him with questions.”
They asked whom he was most excited about in the organization that they might see in Tulsa for the 2017 season.
“Without hesitation, he went into this long-winded description of a pitcher named Walker Buehler,” says Melega. “He said this kid is special; you’re going to love this kid.” The Dodgers selected Buehler with the 24th overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft out of Vanderbilt University. After undergoing Tommy John surgery, he made his professional debut in 2016 for the Arizona League Dodgers, striking out three and retiring all six batters faced.
It’s going to take someone special to erase the memory of the 2016 season, a season in which the Drillers had one of the best rosters in the history of the franchise and still didn’t make the Texas League playoffs. They had nine all stars (and should have had 10), yet didn’t win either half of the season to get into the postseason.
“I don’t know,” says Melega. “Cody Bellinger [ first base] should have made the all star team, but he was injured early and then had a slow start. He would have been 10. He’s going to be a star; hits massive home runs and is the Dodgers’ future first baseman. Probably makes the big club out of spring training.
“Last year we started out so slow; had a couple of pitchers that just weren’t good. By the time the Dodgers could send us a couple of decent arms — Brock Stewart and Trevor Oaks — we were eight or nine games behind. They were so good and our closer Scott Griggs got so hot that we set a Drillers record for number of wins in a row .”
However, after reaching first place with a red-hot May, the Drillers hit a plateau and Springfield won eight of its last 10 games to finish a game and a half ahead of the Drillers.
“I swear that was the best Drillers roster since the 1989 season when we were loaded,” says Melega. “I think we’re going to look back on that team as one of the most talented teams that the Drillers have had in their 40 years of existence, since the year Sammy Sosa was here with Juan González, Dean Palmer and Wilson Álvarez.”
For the uninitiated, Sosa went on to become the only player in Major League Baseball history to hit 60 home runs or more in three seasons. González once hit a home run in Drillers Stadium (at 15th and Yale) that landed in what is now the Walgreens parking lot.
“And Dean Palmer once hit a home run in batting practice with an aluminum bat onto the roof of that building, which back then was Bud’s grocery store,” says Melega. “That was an incredible team.”
As frustrating as it was for the Drillers last season, the Dodgers also somewhat underwhelmed with one of the most talented teams on paper. Last year, the Dodgers won between 91 and 94 games and took the NL West for the fourth straight season. And for the fourth straight year, they bowed out of the playoffs before the World Series. Also keep in mind that the Dodgers haven’t won the NL pennant since 1988 and 24 of the other 29 MLB teams have won a pennant since the Dodgers last did.
“In fact 20 percent of that [Dodgers 2016] playoff roster were guys who had worn Drillers uniforms last year; five guys from our team made the National League playoffs with the big club,” says Melega.
Which makes it even more baffling why that club couldn’t make the Texas League playoffs. But also shines a ray of hope on this year’s club’s chances.
“We have four or five of those players coming back,” says Melega.
While it’s a little tough to know for sure which players will be in Tulsa this year due to the ever-changing rosters at the big-league and Triple-A levels, the Drillers are fairly confident in elder Edwin Rios will be back to start the season. Rios was selected as the Dodgers’ 2016 Minor League Player of the Year after batting a combined .301 with 27 home runs and 76 RBI between three different Dodgers minor league affiliates.
Pitching will be the make-or-break of this team and a large part of that may be carried on Buehler’s shoulders if he lands in Tulsa. The entire coaching staff is back with a year of seasoning under their belts, so that should be a plus as well. Also scheduled to return are Andrew Sopko and Joshua Sborz.
In just his second professional season last year, Sopko was chosen as both a mid-season and post-season all-star in the California League after going 11-2 with a 3.26 ERA with Rancho Cucamonga before being promoted to Tulsa. Sborz, a University of Virginia product, spent the majority of the 2016 season with Rancho Cucamonga where he was selected as the California League Pitcher of the Year after going 8-4 with a 2.66 ERA and opponents batting just .207 against him.
Scott Griggs once again will get some seasoning as the closer. He had an injury that may have led to his version of “Rick Ankiel disease.” Ankiel was a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was dominate, could not be hit in the Texas League and won 10 games at the MLB level until one day he took the mound and for whatever reason could not pitch. He was throwing balls to the backstop from the mound and couldn’t fix it, eventually going back down to the minors to learn to be an out elder.
The same thing happened to Griggs. He was shutting down everyone and then one night while playing Springfield, manager Ryan Garko called on him in the eighth and ninth with about a two or three- run lead. Griggs walked seven guys in a row, lost the game, and misplaced his mojo for the rest of the season. The Drillers and the Dodgers are hoping an offseason has cured those ills.
The chances are good that Alex Verdugo will be back since the Dodgers are so deep at the outfield position. They have seven competing for five spots on the major league roster. Verdugo hit a home run in the Dodgers’ first spring training game this year.
“We’ll have Tim Locastro at shortstop and Rios at third,” says Melega. “Another call up last year was out elder Kyle Garlick from the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He is a power guy as well. I’d put that outfield up against any in the minors.”
The promotional schedule includes postgame reworks following every Friday night home game this season, along with six select Saturday home games. There will also be a Wednesday night reworks display after the game July 5 to help celebrate Military Appreciation Night. There will also be special back-to-back-to-back reworks shows for Labor Day weekend (Sept. 1-3) to wrap up the regular season.
As has become a staple in minor league ballparks around the country, there will be several notable theme nights at ONEOK Field this season that fans will want to mark on their calendars.
Autism Awareness Night at the ballpark will get the theme nights started Saturday, April 29. The Drillers will be wearing special jerseys on the field that will be auctioned off during the game with all proceeds going toward the Autism Center of Tulsa.
Later in the summer, the Drillers will wear pink jerseys on Saturday, June 24, to continue to help raise awareness for women in their fight against breast cancer. Those jerseys will also be auctioned off with the proceeds supporting the Oklahoma-based Project 31.
Tulsa Habitat for Humanity will be partnering with the Drillers for Star Wars Night Friday, Aug. 18.
The popular Faith and Family Night will be returning Friday, July 28. Fans will enjoy a postgame rework show followed by a free concert featuring the nationally recognized band, Citizen Way.
“We are home every weekend in June, so that should be special,” says Melega. “Ron Cey [former Dodgers superstar and six time all-star] will be here for opening night April 13. On April 15 we are giving away batting-practice-style jerseys. We have a Mickey Mantle Night planned with his brothers in town. Another Oklahoma City under Night is on the schedule. Their mascot will be here along with the dancing team. We’ll give away a dry T-shirt with their logo.
“A bobblehead night is planned and we’re working on a Leon Russell tribute night. Jeff Francis will be back, probably the best pitcher in Drillers’ history. It’s going to be great.
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