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Staten Island is the Team of the Year
Baby Bombers have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball
11/01/2011 10:00 AM ET
 
There's a sign in the tunnel of Richmond County Bank Ballpark, the headquarters of the Staten Island Yankees, that reminds players what's expected of them. Posted adjacent to the steps leading to the home dugout along the third base line, it simply reads, "Play like a champion today."

This season, they did just that.

New York's Class A Short-Season affiliate wrapped up a successful 2011 campaign by winning its second New York-Penn League championship in three years and the club's sixth overall in the 13-year history of the franchise. Though the names on the Staten Island roster may not be household like as the ones in the Bronx, the goals and aspirations are the same.

"I think the biggest thing with the young kids here is that there's a culture," said Staten Island manager Tom Slater. "What's expected is that they're going to work hard and do things the right way. It's at the forefront of everything we do. It really gets instilled with the young guys from the start.

"The credit goes to the players always. We have good players that want to work hard. It's a lot of fun to be around them."

The Yankees got off to a hot start and they rode it tape-to-tape to seal a postseason berth. They won 13 straight games between June 20 and July 3 en route to compiling an 18-3 record at the season's start, and they went 45-28 to win the McNamara Division title by a half game over rival Brooklyn. They didn't stop there.

They defeated the surging Cyclones -- winners of six straight to end the regular season -- in the playoff semifinals, and they swept the Auburn Doubledays in the best-of-3 Championship Series.

Slater, who managed of the Gulf Coast Yankees in 2010 in his second season within the organization, put the success down to a combination of fundamental hitting and excellent pitching.

"We had good players and certainly you have to start with that," he said. "Mason Williams, Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, Reymond Nunez are a really nice group of position players and our pitching throughout the season was really solid. Our bullpen was outstanding with [Branden] Pinder as our closer, and Matt Tracy was good as a starter and out of the bullpen throughout the year, and he had some really good starts in the playoffs."

Offensively, the 20-year-old outfielder Williams provided the spark in the Yankees' lineup, but powerful first baseman Zach Wilson and 19-year-old shortstop Culver certainly helped with the workload.

Williams, a Florida native, shared the league lead with 28 stolen bases, and he ranked second with a .349 average and six triples. Wilson, an Arizona State product, led the Yankees with 10 homers -- the only Baby Bombers hitter to go deep more than three times -- and the switch-hitting Culver drove home a team-best 33 runs and drew 30 walks.

On the mound, Will Oliver posted a 5-2 record with a 3.42 ERA in 14 starts, Fred Lewis and Vidal Nuno each went 5-0 out of the bullpen and Pinder recorded 14 saves while holding hitters to a stingy .152 batting average, the lowest mark among all NYPL hurlers.

Slater, who previously coached the Auburn Tigers for four years and his alma mater Virginia Military Institute for three, praised his team's maturity.

"When you look at some of the young guys, they're one year removed from high school," he said. "For them to go up to what is predominantly a college-age league and do as well as they did, it shows that they're extremely talented young players. It's fun to watch those guys. They're all athletic and young and exciting players and I think every one of them has a bright future.

When it got to the playoffs, Tyler Austin hit .429 with four RBIs and two runs in five games, and Williams added seven hits, four runs and three stolen bases. Pinder pitched in four of the five postseason games and did not allow a run over five innings, and Oliver came up huge when it mattered most, turning in six two-hit innings while striking out 10 batters to help clinch a spot in the final.

"Our scouting department did a great job. When you're talking about Culver, Williams, Austin, [Benjamin] Gamel, Gumbs, they're all draft picks from the 2010 Draft out of high school; Culver and Gumbs first and second round, Williams fourth round, Gamel in the 10th, Austin in the 13th, that's just a great job of recognizing high school kids with athleticism and upside.

"Then you look at this year's Draft and see some of the college arms. Pinder was like a 14th or 15th round pick and Matt Tracy was a 24th-round pick. Will Oliver from two years ago was a Draft pick somewhere in the 20s. It's not like every one of these kids was a first- or second-rounder."

The team's success did not surprise Slater, who praised the team he helped lead to a championship.

"I had a lot of these kids in the Gulf Coast League the year before and I was with a lot of them throughout extended spring training," he explained. "It was a very good group of young men. They like to work and they have a great desire to get better. I was happy for them, because they were the ones putting in the hard work every single day."

That attention to detail -- from the coaching staff hires and amateur scouting reports to breading a culture of success in the clubhouse -- all played a major part in helping the Yankees celebrate a title in September.

Considering the talent moving through the system, there's every chance members of this team will be playing like champions for many more years to come.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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