January 2010

Signings, signings…

The Dodgers have added a pair of Minor League free agents that could be Isotopes this season in outfielder Timo Perez and left-handed starter John Koronka, both of whom inked Minor League deals with invites to Major League Spring Training.  Isotopes fans will remember Perez from the 2007 Triple-A All-Star Game at Isotopes Park, where he was named “Star of the Game” after going 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI as a member of the Toledo Mud Hens, Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.   That season was a big one for the veteran outfielder, who finished the year with a month in Detroit, where he batted .389 in 29 games.  After spending the entire 2008 campaign with the Mud Hens, Perez played last year in the Mexican Summer League, batting .323 in 77 games with Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz.   In addition to his stint with the Tigers, Perez has seen Major League time with the St. Louis Cardinals (2006) and Chicago White Sox (2004-05), but has logged most of his Big League service time with the New York Mets (2000-03). 

 

To those who have been to a lot of ‘Topes games in the past six years, Koronka’s name will no doubt ring a little familiar.  After coming up in the Cubs organization, playing for Iowa in 2004-05, the southpaw has played for three PCL teams; Oklahoma (2006-07), Colorado Springs (2007), and New Orleans (2009).  Last year, Koronka saw the Major Leagues for the first time since 2005, starting a pair of games for the Marlins.   

Domino Effect

Yesterday’s news that the Dodgers signed infielder Ronnie Belliard and catcher Brad Ausmus will have as significant an impact on the Isotopes as any of the Minor League free agent signees and non-roster invitees Los Angeles has added this off-season.  Belliard immediately enters camp as the starting second baseman based on his performance last season when he batted .325 (and .381 in the playoffs), but what does that mean for Blake DeWitt, who for the second year in a row began January as the Dodgers’ presumptive starting second baseman?  

As of right now, the Dodgers will begin Spring Training with infielders James Loney, Ronnie Belliard, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, Blake DeWitt, and Nick Green (provided he recovers in time from off-season back surgery).  Add Doug Mientkiewicz and Chin-lung Hu to the mix and you have nine guys competing for roughly six slots.  It’s obvious that DeWitt is well regarded by the Dodgers, who brought him back and forth from Albuquerque last year five times and there’s not doubt that at just 24 it’s only a matter of time before he goes up and stays up in Los Angeles, but with the sheer number of proven Major League players in the mix, one would think there’s a reasonable chance DeWitt could begin the 2010 campaign in Isotopes Park.  For the exact same reasons, the same could possibly be said for Hu.    

Meanwhile, the signing of Ausmus means that A.J. Ellis will most likely begin his third straight season at Triple-A.  Ellis was brought up twice last year, making his first Major League start and getting his first Big League hit (an RBI single) against the Rockies on the last day of the regular season.  In Albuquerque, Ellis was superb, batting .314 with 13 doubles and 39 RBI while earning is second straight Triple-A All-Star selection (his first call-up to Los Angeles precluded his playing in the Triple-A All-Star Game).  While there’s not much more Ellis can prove at Triple-A, the likelihood of the Dodgers carrying three catchers is pretty slim.  

All this intrigue and Spring Training is still a few weeks away!  If you want to get up-to-the-second news on what’s going on with the Dodgers, a great resource is Dylan Hernandez, the excellent beat writer for the L.A. Times.  If you twitter, he is a great one to follow:  www.twitter.com/dylanohernandez.  Jon Weisman of the Times also writes an excellent Dodgers blog called “Dodger Thoughts” that is definitely worth checking out.  Inside the Dodgers is also a tremendous source of official news and insight.             

Closser, Choi Sign Deals With Dodgers

According to Baseball America, the Dodgers have inked a pair of players that were key contributors to the Isotopes’ division title last year in catcher J.D. Closser and relief pitcher Hyang-Nam Choi. Both have signed Minor League deals with the Dodgers and could possibly both be with Albuquerque again this season. 

Last year Closser, who entered the season with 160 Major League games, started the season in Double-A, a move not a lot of players with his Big League tenure would make.  Nevertheless, he impressed the Dodgers with his work ethic and earned a promotion to the ‘Topes on June 15 when catcher A.J. Ellis made his first stint with the Dodgers.  In Albuquerque, Closser batted .295, but was even more impressive in the way he contributed in the community.  The switch-hitting backstop was always willing to visit hospitals or schools and was great with young fans.  If Ellis wins a job as Russell Martin’s back-up in Los Angeles, there’s a very good chance Closser will be Albuquerque’s everyday catcher.  

Also back in the Dodgers’ fold is Choi, who was sensational for the ‘Topes in middle-relief after joining the team on May 16.  In 33 games, the right-hander went 9-2 with a 2.34 ERA, while holding opponents to a .236 average.  Down the stretch, Choi was one of the Isotopes’ most consistently dominating pitchers and was instrumental in the team making the playoffs. 

Another signing of note that involves a former Isotope is the resurfacing of slugger Jason Stokes, who signed a Minor League deal with the Detroit Tigers.  Stokes, who was the Marlins’ second-round pick in the 2000 draft behind Adrian Gonzalez, showed a lot of promise, earning “Best Power Prospect” accolades in 2005 before his career was sidetracked by injuries.  In the last five years, Stokes, who played for the ‘Topes sporadically in 2005 and 2006, has only logged 395 plate appearances (he didn’t play at all in 2008 or 2009). 

One more quick word of thanks to all of those who donated to the Isotopes’ “Haitian Relief Pitch” last week.  More than $19,000 was raised for victims of the terrible earthquake, which made for a pretty amazing day at Isotopes Park.   It’s extremely humbling to see how people rally around others in need.   Thanks again!!            

Helping Haiti

Tomorrow will be a big day at Isotopes Park as the ‘Topes, in conjunction with Citadel Broadcasting and the American Red Cross, will host a “Haitian Relief Pitch” drive-thru fundraiser tomorrow from Noon to 6:00 PM. 

The drive-thru will be set up in Parking Lot C (off of University Blvd.– on the west or third base side of the stadium) and those interested in donating can drive in and make a donation without leaving the warm, cozy comfort of their car.  Both cash and checks will be accepted, but if you do donate with a check, please make it out to the American Red Cross.  The cool part is that with every donation (whether you give $50 or 50 cents) you get a voucher for a free ticket to an Isotopes game next season as well as some swag from Citadel Broadcasting Company. 

While we’d love to see as many people come out to the ballpark as possible, but if you can’t make it, please donate to the Red Cross. If you’ve been following the news coverage from Haiti at all, you know how devastated the country is.  Roughly a third of the entire country’s population is still in need of emergency aid and is in desperate need of help. 

In baseball news. Ken Gurnick has a terrific story on pitcher Eric Stults on Dodgers.com.  It’s strange how quickly he went from bona-fide number five starter in Los Angeles to nearly forgotton Albuquerque Isotope, to the point where he did not get a September call-up and has not been in any of the off-season public discussions about the Dodgers rotation.  Here’s hoping he has a great Spring Training and breaks camp in the Los Angeles rotation.  You’d be hard pressed to find a nicer guy.      

Four More Free Agents Enter Dodgers Fold

The Dodgers continue to be busy on the free agent front,
signing four more players to Minor League contracts with invites to Major
League Spring Training.

Scott Dohmann (right-handed reliever)
Nick Green (infielder)
Argenis Reyes (infielder)
Jay Gibbons (outfielder) 

Dohmann started last season with the Hiroshima Carp in the
Japanese League before being released and joining Reno in the Diamondbacks
organization.  He’s logged 164 Major
League games between three clubs (Colorado, Kansas City, Tampa Bay), with most
of his action coming in a Rockies uniform (2004-06).  His last stint in the Big Leagues came in
2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. 

Green spent last year with the Red Sox, batting .236 with six
homers and 35 RBI in 103 games before his season was shortened with a back disk
injury which necessitated surgery.  The
infielder is expected to compete this spring for the back-up shortstop job
handled ably by former Duke (and briefly Isotope) Juan Castro last year. 

Fellow middle infielder Argenis Reyes spent most of last
season with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons in the Mets organization, getting a
nine-game taste of New York in late June. 
The switch-hitter made his Major League debut with the Mets in 2008,
batting .218 in 49 games. 

Major League veteran Gibbons started last spring in Florida
Marlins camp but was released before the season started, later catching on with
the Newark Bears in the Independent Atlantic League.  From 2001-07, Gibbons was a mainstay in the
Baltimore Orioles organization and enjoyed a career year in 2003 when he was
named Most Valuable Oriole after leading the team in runs (80), RBI (100), hits
(173), and doubles (39).      

(Source: MLB.com)

Russ Ortiz Inks Minor League Deal With Dodgers

According to MLB.com, Big League veteran starting pitcher Russ Ortiz has signed a Minor League contract with the Dodgers that includes an invite to Spring Training.  The right-hander has won 113 Major League games throughout his 15-year career, including 21 victories in 2003 when he was a member of the Atlanta Braves.  After missing the entire 2008 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Ortiz pitched for three teams last year, Colorado Springs (Rockies), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees), and Houston.  In 23 games for the Astros (13 starts), Ortiz went 3-6 with a 5.57 ERA.  

This is very similar to what the Dodgers did last year with Jeff Weaver, Shawn Estes, and Eric Milton, who were all invited to Spring Training and all started the season in Albuquerque. While Estes retired before he got a chance to get to L.A. both Weaver and Milton pitched for the Dodgers and helped contribute to Los Angeles’ NL West Title. 

L.A. inked a similar deal with outfielder Michael Restovich, who spent last season at Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox organization where he batted .290 with 21 homers.  Restovich is a power threat in the same mold as ’09 Isotopes fan favorite Mitch Jones.  In six Triple-A seasons throughout his 12-year career (with five clubs: Edmonton, Rochester, Ioiwa, Columbus, and Charlotte), Restovich has averaged 22 home runs.   

Top 10 Isotopes Moments of 2009

Even though the calendar has turned to 2010, it’s not too late to take one final look at 2009, which will go down has one of the best years in Isotopes history.   Since retrospective lists are so popular this time of year, here is a quick compilation of the top 10 Isotopes moments of 2009.  Please feel free to add more if there are any you think were missed. 

10:  Record-Setting Home Winning Streak
Every night for an amazing 10-game stretch that stretched almost exactly a month from late June into July, Isotopes fans walked to their cars having witnessed a ‘Topes triumph.  The streak began on June 25 with a 4-0 rain-shortened, six-inning win over Nashville and continued with another shutout win over the Sounds the next night, a three-game Independence Day holiday sweep of the Memphis Redbirds, a four-game sweep of New Orleans right after the All-Star Break, and a series opening victory over Iowa on July 24.  The 10-game winning streak was not only the longest in team history (surpassing a nine-game home winning streak in 2005), but was part of a stretch from June 18 to July 31 that saw Albuquerque go an astonishing 25-3. 

9: Special Ks for McDonald
Right-handed starter James McDonald began the season in the Dodgers rotation but struggled, eventually finding himself in the bullpen before being optioned to the Isotopes on May 15.  Once with the ‘Topes, it took all of six games for McDonald to find his rhythm, with his last two starts for Albuquerque being flat-out dominating performances.  He fanned 10 Oklahoma City RedHawks while allowing a run on four hits in seven innings on June 8 before striking out a franchise-record 13 Round Rock Express batters on June 14.  Not only did he set a team record for Ks, he allowed just two hits in seven shutout innings while leading Albuquerque to a 4-0 win.  Not surprisingly, McDonald was called up the very next day and spent the rest of the year with Los Angeles, but his combined line for his last two starts at Triple-A was:  1-0, 0.64 ERA (1 ER / 14.0 IP), 3 BB, 23 Ks. 

8: Racking Up Runs
Isotopes Park will never be considered “pitcher-friendly” but July 30 was a particular rough day for opposing hurlers as the ‘Topes put up a record 23 runs in a 23-6 pasting of the Oklahoma City RedHawks at The Lab.  Thanks to an eight-run first and a six-run third, the score stood at 14-4 after just three frames and the ‘Topes kept piling on more, scoring four more in the fourth, four in the sixth and one in the eighth to coast to the record-setting win.  It was a pretty efficient outing for the Albuquerque offense, which scored the 23 runs on “just” 19 hits, eight of which were for extra bases.  The deluge shattered the previous mark of 18 runs in a game set on two prior occasions. 

7: The Famous Chicken Comes to The Lab
‘Topes fans are used to great promotional acts coming through over the course of a season, but fans got a special treat as the Famous Chicken (nee The San Diego Chicken) made his first-ever appearance at Isotopes Park on July 18.  The feathered one certainly did not disappoint either, as all of the classic bits, as well as a few new wrinkles, were brought out to the delight of the Isotopes faithful. 

6: Turnstiles Humming on Independence Weekend
With a record-setting season attendance of 602,129 last year, there were a number of huge crowds at Isotopes Park in 2009, but none were bigger than the throng that came to see the ‘Topes tangle with Memphis on July 3.  Fans showed up early and kept arriving through the game until 15,358 folks, the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game in Albuquerque, were in the stadium to enjoy fireworks and a 4-3 Isotopes win. 

5: A Pair of Personal Peak Performances
They don’t count as “moments” necessarily, but the performances of outfielder Mitch Jones and closer Scott Strickland throughout the season certainly deserve mention.  Jones belted 35 homers on the year, the most in Minor League Baseball, becoming the third Isotope in as many years to lead the PCL in dingers and the second in as many seasons to lead the minors.  Making his feat even more impressive was the fact Jones missed nearly a month while making his debut with the Dodgers, an eight-game stint in which he racked up his first Major League at-bat, start, hit, and extra-base hit (a double).  Meanwhile, Strickland easily out-paced the field while racking up a PCL-high 32 saves, an Isotopes record.  The former University of New Mexico Lobo came just one save away from tying the Pacific Coast League record of 33 set by Colorado Springs’ Ryan Speier in 2007 and was able to threaten that mark by finishing extremely strong.  Ten of the ‘Topes’ 18 wins in the month of August were saved by Strickland.

4:  Dramatic Pinch-Hit Homers
There’s nothing quite like the drama of a late-inning pinch-hit homer, and the Isotopes had enjoyed two of particular note in 2009.  The first came on May 30 in Oklahoma City, when the ‘Topes were trailing 1-0 in the seventh and final inning of the second game of a doubleheader in which Albuquerque was in danger of losing its fourth straight game while being swept in the twin-bill by identical scores of 1-0.   With two outs and the bases clear, Mitch Jones, who was nursing a sore hamstring, came off the bench and did his best Roy Hobbs / Kirk Gibson impression, lining a 1-2 pitch over the fence for a dramatic game-tying homer.  Of course, thanks to the momentum of Jones’s blast, the Isotopes added one more in the seventh and held on for a thrilling 2-1 win.  On July 1 at Isotopes Park, Luis Maza added his name to the Isotopes record books by delivering the first pinch-hit grand slam in team history.  Trailing 4-3 with two out in the sixth inning against Memphis, Maza came off the bench with the bases loaded and crushed the first pitch he saw over the center field fence for a grand slam that capped a seven-run ‘Topes inning and paced the home team to a 9-5 win. 

3: The Dodgers Return to Albuquerque
While the announcement that the Los Angeles Dodgers would return their Triple-A affiliate to Albuquerque was made in 2008, it was made official on Opening Day, April 9, 2009.  On a chilly evening, 10,141 fans came out to witness history as Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda threw out the first pitch and gave a great pre-game address that helped usher in a new era of professional baseball in Albuquerque. Putting the perfect cap on a story-book night was the fact the Isotopes prevailed 14-8 over Omaha,   

2: Mannywood, New Mexico
The rumors started in mid-June and reached a fever-pitch as the month, and the 50-game suspension of Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez, neared an end.   Finally, on June 22 it was announced that Manny would spend a three-game stay in Albuquerque, creating a firestorm in the Duke City.   Fans started lining up early to grab tickets and more than 60 media outlets from all over the country arrived in town to cover the festivities.  ESPN and MLB Network each did live cut-ins during each of Manny’s at-bats, which ultimately proved anti-climatic.  The slugger only played two games, going 0-3 with a strikeout and a walk.  Nevertheless, the excitement around Isotopes Park was incredible with 43,480 attending ‘Topes games from June 23-25, including a throng of 15,083 that showed up on June 25 for a game in which Manny didn’t even play.  

1: Playoffs!
For the first time in five years, the Isotopes’ regular season ended with a chance to sip champagne, as Albuquerque claimed its first division title since 2003.  With a record of 80-64, the team’s best record ever, the ‘Topes won their division by 11 games over Oklahoma City and celebrated with a clinching victory over Memphis on August 30 that culminated in players circling the warning track while spraying bubbly into the stands.  For his efforts in leading the ‘Topes back into the post-season, manager Tim Wallach was singled out as the PCL’s Manager of the Year and received “Best Manager Prospect” recognition from Baseball America.  It was an electric ending to an unbelievable campaign, and while the Isotopes were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Redbirds, it could not diminish what was a wonderful 2009 season. 

Now we turn our sights to the 2010 campaign, which is shaping up to be just as memorable.  With Major League Weekend on April 2-3 followed by another season with Tim Wallach at the helm, Isotopes Park will no doubt see its fair share of exciting moments in the months to come!     

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