Vero Beach Review

As the Vero Beach Dodgers took the field for their third Florida State League East Division playoff game against Palm Beach, a club official watching commented, "What do you think would happen if we had the same lineup we started the season with…?" It was a rhetorical question, he answered himself, "We'd sweep this thing"

He wouldn't get disagreement from manager Scott Little, down the field, who noted, "You know, I just began to take for granted the things they could do. It wasn't until after they'd gone, that I started to appreciate just how much they meant."

The "they" under discussion were the players who had been promoted to Jacksonville -- third baseman Andy LaRoche , who was leading the league in home runs with 21 (plus 51 RBI) in just 63 games and pitcher Justin Orenduff, who was 5-3 with a 2.24 ERA when both departed after the Dodgers had clinched the first-half title. They were followed later by outfielder Justin Ruggiano and second baseman Tony Abreu, the latter having stayed around long enough to clinch the league batting title with a .327 mark.

You can add to that shortstop Chin-lung Hu , who hit .313 and played superbly on defense before joining the Taiwanese team in the World Cup. LaRoche, Abreu and Hu were all named to the league's all-star team.

None were around at the end and for sure were sorely missed when Palm Beach bumped the team that had compiled an overall 77-56 record two games to one. That was the third season in succession that the Dodgers had made the post-season, only to depart early.

Still, it was a glorious campaign for most of them. And, if the bottom line in the minors is development, that was certainly achieved as many grew into their roles and prospered, none more so than outfielder Matt Kemp, who began the year on the disabled list with a sprained wrist but finished it with a club record 27 home runs (plus two more in the playoffs), 90 RBI and 23 steals to leap forward on the prospect's list.

Outfielder Anthony Raglani, technically a rookie because he played in only six games last season after having his hand operated on, also contributed mightily with a .289-19-77 season. Blake DeWitt, who came up from Columbus to become the final third baseman after LaRoche, sparkled in his short eight-game stay. And his 12-pitch at-bat that ended with a dramatic ninth inning home run to win the only playoff game that Vero did come out ahead in, etched his name into local yore with that one swing.

As for the pitching, lefthander Chuck Tiffany had an up-and-down season caused mainly by an operation on his back to remove a suspicious mole, a procedure that set him back for much of the mid-season. Still he wound up with 11 wins, finishing with 10 no-hit innings, split evenly between the final regular season game and the third playoff contest. Danny Muegge, who replaced Orenduff in the rotation, was the steadiest starter of them all in the second half, going 8-2, 3.38.

Mark Alexander was the most proficient closer in the system with 23 saves while set-up man Casey Hoorelbeke, who altered his pitching style to a drop-down delivery ala Steve Schmoll, was a first-rate set-up man.

The biggest surprise would have to be Ruggiano. True, he had hit .329 for Ogden the year before but was only a 26th-round draft pick in 2004 and those kind are always suspect. But he showed his value with a .310 average, nine home runs and 16 stolen bases, well earning his promotion.

The biggest disappointment had to righthander Julio Pimentel, regarded as one of the better pitching prospects in the organization but who faltered badly in the second half, winding up 8-10, 5.08.

For most, though, there was honor to spare in a truly fine season.

Team leaders in key departments:

Games- Raglani 124
Runs- Raglani 82
Hits- Hu 147
2B- Hu 29
3B- Raglani 5
HR- Kemp 27
RBI- Kemp 90
SB- Hu, Kemp 23
Ave- Abreu .327
OBP- Raglani .353
Slug- Kemp .569

Innings- Muegge 127.2
Wins- Tiffany 11
ERA- Hoorelbeke 2.42
Saves- Alexander 23
SO- Tiffany 134
OBA- Tiffany .226