MANCHESTER - With the constant excitement and buzz at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium this summer, it's easy to forget where the majority of the 2018 New Hampshire Fisher Cats were this time a year ago.
Players had abandoned Manchester, beginning their offseason routines elsewhere after a last-place finish in the Eastern League standings and a sixth consecutive year without playoff baseball.
Flip to Friday night, where this year's Fisher Cats were still together playing baseball in Manchester as they took the Eastern League title for the first time in seven years by completing a sweep of the Akron RubberDucks. The worst-to-first run was nothing short of brilliant, but far from unexpected. While a championship is never a given, the Fisher Cats knew what they had from the onset of their banner year.
"This incredible team was not only skilled, but had the kind of character you always want," said Fisher Cats owner Art Solomon while addressing fans following New Hampshire's 8-5 triumph on Friday. "They were never out of a game and some of the players (that were with the team at one point or another during the season) even moved up to the majors. You're looking at guys here that will be joining the others in the majors over the next couple years."
First-year manager John Schneider breathed new life into the club along with the addition and fanfare of Toronto Blue Jays top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.
Then add in resurgent campaigns from Eastern League Playoff Most Valuable Player Harold Ramirez and Max Pentecost, strong starting pitching from T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris and Jordan Romano, and steady bullpen arms that feared no hitter during the playoffs. It was a recipe for success.
New Hampshire was not a team that pinned its fortunes to one player. Minor league baseball teams can't do that with constant moving parts between minor league affiliates. It took contributions across the board, from players and coaches alike, to go from 59-80 last year to this year's 82-62 mark.
"I know last year wasn't the best for the Fisher Cats," Schneider said. "All the credit goes to the players for the way they worked and ground it out, man. It's a long season ... and to win as many games as we did and for them to play the last six games they did is just incredible. I'm happy to be a part of it."
While the overall turnaround is something to marvel, the 6-0 playoff mark is a greater feat given the team's lackluster play over the final month of the season. New Hampshire played sub-.500 baseball, going 15-18 from Aug. 1 to the end of the year, costing the club a chance at a regular-season division title and providing itself little to no momentum for the playoffs.
"We were losing a lot at the end of the year, but nobody really cared," Bichette said. "It was weird, but Schneider didn't even really care and no coach gave off the impression that they were nervous or freaking out. We all kind of figured when the playoffs came that we'd turn it up, and we did."
Of all the player contributions the Fisher Cats can correlate their success to, Jon Berti's efforts rank atop the laundry list. Berti's fourth tour with the Fisher Cats came out of necessity when he was acquired on June 8 from the Cleveland Indians organization, a move made to fill the void left by Guerrero Jr., who was placed on the disabled list the day before the trade.
Guerrero Jr., Major League Baseball's top prospect, tore up Eastern League pitching in April and May before a knee sprain held him out for all of June. Upon returning to health, Guerrero Jr. played seven more games with the Fisher Cats before a promotion to Triple-A Buffalo on July 31.
Berti, a seven-year minor leaguer and career .258 hitter, went far above his role of merely stabilizing the lineup with Guerrero Jr. out. Berti assumed Guerrero Jr's menacing presence at the plate.
The 28-year-old hit .314 in 72 regular-season games with New Hampshire with eight homers, 42 RBIs, 21 stolen bases and 55 runs scored. Add those numbers to Guerrero Jr.'s Double-A production and you have an Eastern League MVP candidate and likely winner. Berti and Guerrero Jr. combined for 22 homers, 102 RBIs, 103 runs scored and 181 hits across 511 at-bats.
Berti continued his roll in the playoffs, going 6-for-23 with six RBIs, six runs scored and three stolen bases. Three of his hits came in Friday's title-clinching win over Akron.
"We had a little bit of a meeting when I first got back here and I said I'd love to get a ring the fourth time around," Berti said. "I knew we had a lot of talent in this locker room. A lot of talent. To finish things off and do the job we did was just fantastic."
Solomon's proclamation on the bright future ahead for New Hampshire's roster wasn't just talk.
The Fisher Cats' starting lineup on Friday featured five of the Blue Jays' top 30 prospects, according to MLB.com, while New Hampshire had 10 of those 30 players on its roster at one point or another during the season.
While an opportunity to play in the majors is undoubtedly the end goal for every Fisher Cat, Bichette knows winning championships can't hurt a player's stock within the organization.
"I think there's a little selfishness in minor league baseball with all of us trying to move up, but once the season is over and we're put in this situation, it can only benefit us," Bichette said. "We're learning to perform with a little more adrenaline and it's fun for us too. If we're going to be here an extra couple weeks instead of going home then we might as well go for the win."
Bichette, No. 2 among the Blue Jays' top 30 prospects, is one of 10 Fisher Cats to win back-to-back titles after a Florida State League crown with Advanced-A Dunedin (Fla.) last season.
It's possible that all 10 players, which include Bichette, Biggio and Zeuch, could reach Toronto in the next year or so.
Bichette said upon arriving in New Hampshire in April that he and his teammates sought to grab the attention of Toronto with what they had in store for the 2018 season. Was the mission accomplished?
"I don't know. Maybe some super fans saw, but I don't know if they're watching the Eastern League playoffs," said Bichette while revisiting his April comments. "Hopefully they're getting excited watching us and seeing what we're capable of doing. I think we all believe it can be something special and are hoping it will be."