Teaming with Life
Drillers manager Scott Hennessey is looking forward not only to an opportunity to win another championship but to continue developing players who can contribute to the Dodgers’ World Series quest.
Amid an unprecedented run of success, having reached the Texas League Final in each of the past three seasons, the Tulsa Drillers are looking forward to what 2020 can bring once the season begins following the postponement caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Tulsa had endured a long dry stretch in which every other team in the Class AA Texas League had won a championship since their previous one in 1998, including several clubs who were no longer even in the TL. But Tulsa signed a new affiliation agreement with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015, and midway through the 2017 season, they brought in manager Scott Hennessey, and everything changed.
Hennessey is happy to be back and is looking forward not only to another opportunity to win another championship to go with their title in 2018 but to continue developing players who can eventually contribute to the Dodgers’ quest to win a World Series, which is the ultimate goal.
“January 1 hits and it’s like, ‘turn the page from last year,’” Hennessey says. “Good or bad, you move on, and your blood gets flowing. You go to spring training, and you got new guys and a new year. I’m looking forward to developing guys as we do, with a winning atmosphere and a winning culture. Hopefully, we can have another Gavin Lux or a Dustin May, who no one thought that they would be in the big leagues last year. And that’s why we do this, to speed that process up and help our big league club win.
“As long as I’m here, we’re going to try to win every game, but we’re going to do it the right way and develop guys, but I think it goes hand-in-hand. You can’t just flip on the light switch. You can develop all you want, but if you don’t know how to win, you’re not going to learn how to win in the big leagues. You have to learn to win down here, and you have to learn to be a professional, and we have to develop them. That’s why the Dodgers are the Dodgers. We’re creating a winning atmosphere, and we’re winning in the big leagues.”
So far, over the past few years, that formula has worked well, as the Drillers have contributed several key components to the Dodgers’ roster, and in turn, the big league club has enjoyed its postseason success. Los Angeles has won the National League West in each of the past seven years, reaching the World Series in both 2017, when they lost to the now-revealed-to-have-been-cheating Houston Astros in seven games, and in 2018, when they lost to the Boston Red Sox — both times with former Drillers helping. Hennessey believes there is a direct correlation.
“Well, Gavin Lux has been in the playoffs a lot,” says Hennessey, rattling off a list of recent Drillers who have contributed in LA. “Will Smith has been in the playoffs a lot, and so has Tony Gonsolin, Matt Beaty, and Caleb Ferguson. As long as we can continue to have playoff games here, and in A ball and AAA, it helps these guys when they get to the playoffs and get to the World Series, and get us over the hump.”
The last three years mark the first time in Drillers history (which dates back to 1977) that the club made the league final in three straight years and the first time a Tulsa baseball team did it since the old Oilers reached the TL championship three consecutive seasons from 1962-64, winning twice. They’ve never made it four in a row.
That they only won the title once, in 2018, during this current stretch is unfortunate, because it very easily could be, and perhaps should be, three straight championships.
In 2017, they won the first two games of the final series on the road against Midland and returned home with three chances to win one game to clinch the title, but lost three close games in a row.
Last year, they were up two games to one on Amarillo, lost Game 4 at home, and then had a 3-1 lead heading into the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 before the bullpen collapsed, surrendering seven runs and losing 8-3. Still, despite the intensely disappointing ending, it’s hard to look at last year as anything but a success.
“I take that it was a rewarding year, because of all the moving parts that we had,” Hennessey says. “The shock of that last inning, and being in the locker room with the guys, and how disappointed they were, that’s how you know you have buy-in because it meant a lot to everybody. We didn’t get it done; we fell one inning short. It was nobody’s fault, and you learn from that and move on. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen again.”
Unfortunately for Tulsa, two key 2019 Drillers who won’t be back this year are catcher Connor Wong and shortstop Jeter Downs. They were part of the package the Dodgers sent the Red Sox to acquire 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts and former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price.
“It’s going to be hard to replace Connor Wong and Jeter Downs,” Hennessey says. “However, you get a Mookie Betts, who’s arguably one of the top two or three baseball players in the world, and you get a left-handed pitcher like David Price, who still has outstanding years left. You can’t keep everybody. And that’s part of why we do this. Those guys aren’t going to be replaceable, but like I tell these guys, ‘Next man up.’ Who that’s going to be? We don’t know yet.”
Hennessey did mention some players he thinks will probably at least start the season in Tulsa: third baseman Cristian Santana (who batted .301 and had 57 RBI in 102 games with the Drillers last year); outfielder Cody Thomas (23 home runs, 76 RBI in 130 games with Tulsa); outfielder Donovan Casey (who spent most of the year at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, but did play 25 games in Tulsa and batted .410 for the Drillers in the postseason); outfielder Jeren Kendall (who hit 19 HRs and 63 RBI for Rancho Cucamonga); starting pitcher Josiah Gray (who split last season between Rancho and Tulsa, going 3-2 with a 2.75 earned run average in eight starts for Tulsa); starter Leo Crawford (who also split the year between Rancho and Tulsa, going 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in five Drillers starts); and starter Edwin Uceta (who went 7-2 with a 2.31 ERA in 14 Tulsa starts).
How long all these guys will be here is unknown at this point, but Hennessey expects regular player movement throughout the season.
“It’ll be a good year, and I think we’re getting good players. We’re doing a good job developing them,” he says. “And if they succeed, we’re not holding guys back anymore, whereas 20 years ago, you would go to A ball for a year, then you would go to AA for a year, spend the whole season, and why do that? If they’re ready, get them up to the big leagues and help the team win now. If they’re ready, we’re going to get them out of here. That’s a good thing.”
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