Change is expected, even encouraged, in the Minor Leagues. But it can be painful, too. With success comes upward mobility; the players who thrived at a lower level move on to the next, leaving their former team in the hands of those left behind.
Such is life in the Minors.
When the Charleston RiverDogs finished atop the South Atlantic League Southern Division in the first half, clinching the club's first playoff berth in 11 years, the team was on an understandable high. But at the end of the second half, the RiverDogs were below .500 and more than half of the roster that had excelled in the first half was gone, lost to promotions, demotions or disabled list stints, and the team's momentum had seemingly left town, as well. In total, more than 60 players suited up for Charleston over the course of the year.
Although Charleston went into the playoffs with a historically good pitching staff -- the RiverDogs' hurlers set a franchise record for strikeouts with 1,248 and tied the franchise record with 15 shutouts -- the offense was struggling to find consistency.
The RiverDogs' roster of young talent was still figuring out how to play together when the regular season ended, leaning on the six guys remaining from Charleston's Opening Day roster -- Cody Carroll, Anyelo Gomez, Kyle Holder, Jhalan Jackson, Hoy Jun Park and Andrew Schwaab -- to lead the way.
Heading into a best-of-three series against the red-hot Rome Braves -- who ran out a fairly consistent lineup all year and possessed a roster that included three of Atlanta's top 10 prospects -- Charleston needed to get back on track. Quickly.
The Braves had everything going for them, and in Game 1, they took advantage, winning 3-1 at Rome and sending Charleston back home on the brink of elimination.
Prior to Game 2 at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park in Charleston, the 'Dogs were feeling the pressure. Not only had Charleston not been in the playoffs for 11 years, but the city's team hadn't even won a playoff game since 1988, back when the club was known as the Charleston Rainbows of the San Diego Padres' system. And you would have to go all the way back to 1922 to find the last championship in Charleston.
History was on the line, and the burden of winning was about to fall squarely on the shoulders of the guys who had been there all season long.
In his second year in professional baseball, the only goals shortstop Kyle Holder set for himself were to contribute and get better. Of course, as a member of the Yankees organization, there's another expectation: winning.
"When I got drafted by the Yankees, the first things that popped into my mind were all the championships the organization has and how prestigious they are," he said. "I thought about how it's going to be fun trying to get to the Major Leagues in an organization that's so known throughout the world."
To get started down that road, the first thing Holder had to do was prove he could play. Through a full year in Charleston, he did just that.
The 22-year-old batted .290 in 88 games for the RiverDogs, collected 102 hits, scored 40 runs and had a .323 on-base percentage. But more importantly, he was part of the glue that held the team together as the roster fluctuated drastically after the first-half clinch.
"We had a lot of meetings after we clinched in the first half," Holder said. "We said, 'Let's not get lackadaisical out there, and let's try to play our best even though we're already in.'"
The message was backed up by Manager Luis Dorante, who relied on his core group of players, which included Jackson and Schwaab, as well, to let everyone know what was expected of them.
"We came all the way here [to the playoffs], and we all deserve to have the experience, but for those guys who were here in the beginning, it's a huge support to the guys who just joined the club," Dorante said. "We've relied on those guys to give a hand a little bit to the new guys.
"But the mentality is always the same," he continued. "It's the same baseball; all you have to do is keep working and keep getting better. We always had that message in mind, and we want to get that point across first."
For Holder, that message was never more important than at the end of the season. Despite the repeated meetings and stated goals, Charleston started struggling in the second half, and the losing streaks became longer than the winning streaks.
Holder helped keep his team afloat in the dog days. While the offense lagged in August, the left-handed hitter batted .338 with 25 hits in 18 games. And in five games in September prior to the start of the playoffs, the shortstop went 10-for-24. In the last game of the regular season, he went 3-for-6 and scored three runs in a 14-2 RiverDogs win.
But in Game 1 of the playoffs, the bats couldn't pick up the pitchers, and a run of bad luck on the bases plagued Charleston. The RiverDogs returned home with their backs against the wall, but their heads very much in the game.
That same message Holder and his teammates preached all year was restated, with a reminder to also have some fun. This was playoff baseball, after all, and following a long year with Charleston, Holder wanted to deliver some good news to the city and the fans.
"Any time you can be part of a playoff run with any team, even when you're younger, you get those butterflies in your stomach," he said from the Charleston dugout a few hours prior to the start of Game 2. "Something about a playoff game makes your mindset a little different. It's extra special. That nervousness comes, and you just try to do whatever you can to try and help the team win.
"It's going to be a close ballgame, but we're just going to try to go out there, minimize mistakes, get runners across the plate and go from there."
Break Out the Rally Caps
Game 2 started much the same as Game 1 had. After the Braves plated a run in the top half of the first, Charleston had an opportunity with two on and one out in the bottom of the frame, but some bad bounces kept the RiverDogs off the board.
Starting pitcher Daris Vargas struggled on the mound, and by the time he was pulled in the fourth inning, Charleston was down 3-0 against lefty Kolby Allard, the fourth-ranked prospect in the Braves' organization, according to MLB.com.
Taylor Widener was brought in to stop the bleeding. The 21-year-old right-hander had impressed in just over a month with Charleston, so Dorante gave him the ball and hoped for the best.
What he got was a masterful performance. Widener pitched 4.1 innings of one-hit baseball, giving his team a fighting chance to keep its playoff run going.
Through six innings, Allard had allowed just three hits, but he was lifted with a comfortable three-run lead. Chase Johnson-Mullins was brought in for Rome in the bottom of the seventh and struck out the first batter he faced.
Eight outs away from the end of their season, the RiverDogs buckled down. The next two batters worked walks, and then the No. 9 hitter, Cesar Diaz, smacked a run-scoring single up the middle. With runners on first and second and Holder stepping up to the plate as the go-ahead run, the Braves went to the bullpen once more.
Holder patiently worked a walk against Corbin Clouse to load the bases. A single to right field by Vicente Conde plated two more runs, and Holder stood on second base as the potential winning run.
After a Mandy Alvarez strikeout, Jhalan Jackson settled in at the plate.
Although he was in the top three on the team in home runs, doubles, triples, walks, RBI and runs, Jackson had a challenging year.
After a promising debut at Short-Season A-ball in Staten Island in 2015, Jackson expected his rise to continue in a hurry. But a tough April and an excruciating May meant Jackson had many hurdles to jump to get to where he wanted to be. Then, back-to-back stints on the disabled list derailed the outfielder's June.
"This year for me has been really up and down," he said. "I wanted to be a little more consistent coming in, but that didn't happen."
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jackson is imposing in just about every way. But he is soft-spoken and thoughtful, and the disappointment he felt about his year is striking.
He wanted better for himself and for his team. The struggles Charleston had as the year progressed weighed on everyone, and in Jackson's eyes, the desire to keep playing was clearly visible.
When asked what a Game 2 win would mean, Jackson's eyes lit up.
"It would mean a lot," he said. "Being here all year, getting to know some of the fans who have been coming here for many years, it's been a pretty long time since they made the playoffs, so I think it would mean a lot for the town to get a win and hopefully a championship."
He has never won a championship, he said. Not even when he was playing Little League. He wants to experience what winning feels like. But first, he just wants to win the game in front of him.
"I'm hoping things go our way tonight," he said. "We left a lot of runners on base in the last game, so this game, I think we're going to find a way to get it done and come out on top."
Gaining The Lead
Clouse threw Jackson a first-pitch ball; on the next pitch, Jackson ripped a bouncer to third base. At the hot corner, Braves third baseman Austin Riley charged, but the ball darted under his glove and into left field.
With the ball rolling quickly onto the outfield grass, Holder raced around third and headed home, sliding in safely to give the RiverDogs their first lead in the series.
Pumped up, Holder headed for his teammates celebrating in the dugout. Ahead in the late innings, Dorante signaled to get his closer up.
Widener came out for the eighth inning and sent the Braves down 1-2-3 while Andrew Schwaab began to get loose in the bullpen.
Sealing Schwaab's Fate
Schwaab has always had the mentality of a closer. A starter and "sometimes closer" in high school, the side-armer headed to junior college intent on becoming a late-innings pitcher. At Crowder College in Missouri, Schwaab was named the team's Pitcher of the Year in 2013 after racking up 11 saves and allowing just nine runs in 30.1 innings.
He soon transferred to the University of Missouri, but struggled as a reliever in his first year, before turning dominant in 2015. The Yankees took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and he worked his way up from a middle-relief role in the Gulf Coast League to the closer of the Pulaski Yankees in the Appalachian League.
He started 2016 with Charleston as the team's closer, and good results led to a promotion to High-A Tampa in mid-July. But the righty struggled with the T-Yanks. In eight games, the reliever allowed 14 hits and eight runs. He was demoted back to Charleston in mid-August.
Headed back to a stellar pitching staff and a playoff team -- albeit one that was struggling -- Schwaab was hoping to help right the ship.
"With how good our first half was, it would be really cool to have that [championship] hardware to really show that we did something here," he said. "Then the same with setting all the records with the pitching staff, it would really be rewarding for us."
Unprompted, Schwaab raved about the pitching staff and how exciting it had been to hang with all of the young arms that came through Charleston. In total, the RiverDogs sent 37 guys to the mound this season, and Schwaab was just happy to be one of them, to have had a hand in the records they set. Sure, he was disappointed that he didn't succeed in Tampa the same way some of his former teammates had, but to be back in Charleston as the club chased more history was just another opportunity for the 23-year-old to prove he could compete in high-pressure situations.
What would it be like if the game came down to him?
"That would be awesome, and it would definitely make me feel really good about myself," he said, getting more and more excited with each sentence. "Going down to Tampa earlier in the season, I struggled a little bit, and I come back here, I kind of found my groove a little bit. To end the season on that kind of note would just be really, really good for me and obviously for Charleston. Imagining me coming in, whenever it is, tonight, Game 3, Game 5 of a championship series, I would be stoked. I'd be ready to go, definitely. I wouldn't show it until afterward, but I'd be really excited. Mostly I just want to get a win tonight. That'd be nice."
Finally, A Victory
Although the RiverDogs had a runner in scoring position in the bottom of the frame, they couldn't put an insurance run across. Schwaab jogged to the mound with a 4-3 lead and a potential Game 3 looming the next night.
Rome's first batter of the ninth, Carlos Castro, walked, but Schwaab wasn't rattled. The pitcher struck out the next batter on a fouled bunt attempt with two strikes. The Braves' No. 9 hitter stepped to the plate, and Schwaab lost control. He threw a wild pitch, allowing Anfernee Seymour, who had entered as a pinch-runner for Castro, to advance into scoring position.
After taking a breath, Schwaab regained control. He induced a grounder to third, and even though Seymour advanced to third on the long throw across the diamond, the RiverDogs' closer was within one out of saving Charleston's first playoff win in nearly three decades.
Up to the plate walked Ray-Patrick Didder, the Braves' center fielder, who already had two hits, an RBI and a run scored in the game.
Schwaab settled in, looked toward his catcher and released ball one. Then strike one. Then a foul made it 1-2. Ball two followed. And then, finally, a beautiful called third strike that painted the inside corner of the plate.
Schwaab let out his excitement with a fist pump. Charleston had its playoff win.
A Beginning in the End
Minor League baseball is an interesting thing. As Dorante says, development comes first, winning comes second. When Charleston was at the top of its game in the first half of the season, the two goals were being accomplished simultaneously.
As development accelerates, though, so do promotions. The best players in Low-A ball have to move up to High-A ball, even at the expense of their former team.
But sometimes good players stay. Maybe their path is blocked or various setbacks mean the brakes have to be pumped temporarily. Sometimes a player gets promoted and is overmatched, so he gets sent back down. Sometimes certain stars align, and guys who have played together most of the year get to come together to accomplish something special.
Hold up a mirror to Holder's or Jackson's or Schwaab's seasons, and you'll see the exact same season that Charleston had as a whole. The highs and lows, the triumphs and disappointments, they were all there, and most of them happened together. Each player and the team had the same mission -- develop into something better.
For the most part, it was mission accomplished. Holder had a career year, Jackson finished better than he started, and Schwaab regained a groove in the late innings.
The RiverDogs did get that playoff win, but the next night, they lost Game 3 to the Braves. Their season ended with a loss, sure, but there was a heck of a lot to be proud of.
Throughout the year, 18 RiverDogs proved themselves in Charleston and earned call-ups to a higher level. But there were also those guys who held the team together all year. They came through for their team in the end, and next year, they'll try to do it all again, but hopefully at the next rung on the ladder they continue to climb, leaving a new core group to thrive in Charleston.