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.
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!