Emeralds making history in Eugene

Eugene, OR: There was no way the Eugene Emeralds were going to extend this streak.

On Wednesday, June 29, the Emeralds dynamic offense was non-existent for eight innings against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. And when they had an opportunity score runs, their bats could not produce a timely hit, leaving 10 runners on base.

But this team, consisting largely of players and coaches experiencing professional baseball for the first time, apparently has not learned how to lose.

Down one run in the bottom of the ninth, the Emeralds showed that talent, execution, and a little luck will each play a role in any winning streak.

A Mykal Stokes walk followed a one-out, infield single from catcher Matthew Colantonio. Jace Peterson moved the tying run 90-feet away with a ground out to the first baseman, whose only play was at second base. With runners on the corners, Clint Moore wore a pitch up around his shoulders to load the bases.

Up to bat with the bases loaded and two outs was the San Diego Padres 2011 first-round draft pick, second baseman Cory Spangenberg. His first-pitch single to left field scored two runs for a walk-off 3-2 victory and extended the winning streak to eight games in a row.

Through only 18 games this season, the Emeralds are already flirting with history, and illustrating that they are anything but the 2010 Emeralds, who finished that season with a 32-44 record.

The Emeralds have won 13 straight games, matching the longest streak in Northwest League history, most recently accomplished by Walla Walla in 1973.

With their record-tying win, the Ems are 16-2 on the year and have a perfect record on the road (8-0). They also hold a five-game lead over the Vancouver Canadians in the West Division.

Their record is the best among any of the 40 teams nationwide in the short-season Class A or rookie leagues.

The Emeralds are immediately proving that a new culture exists within the clubhouse, and both players and coaches say their first-year skipper has been an essential reason.

Murphy went 629-284-1 in 15 seasons as head coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils. While it is early in his tenure as the Ems manager, Murphy's ability to coach winning teams appears to be translating to the professional level.

"Murphy has always been a good, winning coach," starting pitcher Matt Andriese said. "I think he's bringing that atmosphere to our team. Wherever he's been, he's won, and I think he's brining that coaching method here."

Players describe Murphy as a "players manager," and his players have a desire to perform for him above all else.

"(Murphy is) coming from an angle of passion and energy, fight and grit and just wanting to go out there and perform well every night. That's something that (Murphy) shows in his pores," first-year hitting coach Chris Prieto said. "I think these guys are starting to have that energy in them as well."

The Emeralds offense has led the team through this early tear. They lead the Northwest League in runs, double, on-base percentage and OPS. The poster-child of their lineup has been Spangenberg, who leads the team in almost every offensive category and sports a .557 on-base percentage and a .387 batting average.

Spangenberg has made a seamless transition to the professional level, and it shouldn't be long before he will be promoted to the next level.

"I'm telling you, (Spangenberg) has been unbelievable," Murphy said. "He's a special player. He's always at the same volume, and it's a good volume, and he's always there. He's never too much higher or never too much lower. Every pitch is important to him. He doesn't take any pitches off. He doesn't assume anything. He plays the pitch. He's a special kid."

The most adversity the Ems have faced this year has been the suspension of the Padres 2009 third-overall draft choice, Donavan Tate. Tate's potential was just beginning to emerge before his second violation of MLB's drug of abuse policy has forced him to miss 25 games.

Just hours after learning that they would be losing one of their top-performers, the Emeralds scored 11 runs while not allowing a run against the Volcanoes.

Add resiliency to this team's resume.

On the mound, the Emeralds pitching has received far more run support than they have needed. The Ems arms have been nearly as impressive as their bats.

After the first series of the season against the Boise Hawks, Murphy called out his staff after they had allowed 30 runs in five games. Since then the Ems have allowed more than four runs in only one game. They rank near the top of almost every pitching category in their eight-team league.

The starting pitchers have not been able to pitch deep into ball games due to pitch counts, which protect their young arms—also, 2011 draftee's already pitched a full season at the college level before they arrived to Eugene. This has meant that the bullpen has been called on daily to eat-up a lot of innings.

The anchor of the bullpen has been closer Kevin Quackenbush, who is also a first-year player. Quackenbush leads the league in saves with seven and has been unflappable at the end of games. More impressive than his number of save is that he has 16 strikeouts to only two walks in 10 innings of work, and he has not allowed a single run.

"I think our relief pitching has been very good up to this point," Prieto said. "Our starting pitching has been good, too. When your pitching keeps you in a ballgame, you always have a chance to win.

"From an offensive standpoint, if we are just trying to manufacture runs some how, some way, and we know in the back of our minds that our pitching is going to keep us in a ballgame, that gives you confidence. When you're confident good things will happen."

Spangenberg and Quackenbush are just two of many new faces on the Emeralds roster. Other than from Murphy, the excitement of being a professional baseball player for the first time has been a source of this team's energy.

Fourteen of the Emeralds 30 players were drafted in 2011, and with so many adjusting to their new lives as big leaguers, they have been able to bond over this shared experience.

"We got a good group of guys here," said Peterson, who was a first-round selection in 2011. "Fortunately, everyone who is here is here for a reason. We all have great chemistry on and off the field.

"For us, only being together for only a few weeks, it seems like we've been playing for a while. It's a feeling you get when you're on the field, and it's clicking, and we keep on rolling with it."

For not only the new players, but also all of the players at this level, the coaching staff is focused on developing the talent. The objective of the coaches is to create a learning atmosphere. And despite the record, Murphy does not believe his team is playing its best baseball.

"These kids are self motivated," he said. "They know that things are working out well for us right now. We're not playing great baseball right now. That motivates them to get better. They like being around each other, and there's a good atmosphere around here."

The Emeralds are reminded daily that they are only three weeks into the season. But shouldn't this have been the toughest part of the season as the team tries to mesh so many new parts? In Eugene, skill and excitement reign supreme. And they hope that this isn't just a trend, but the culture for the remainder of the season.

"It's unbelievable how many talented guys we have, and to get them all in this draft, and for them all to end up here, it's just something that's mind-blowing," Peterson said. "I'm just excited for the experience, and I can't believe I'm here, and I don't think I could be in a better place."

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