The Bees are Midwest League Champs!

After two consecutive rainouts, the Midwest League has cancelled the remainder of the championship series and declared the Bees 2008 Midwest League Champions. The Bees won the first two games of the series by a combined score of 18-0 and were poised to sweep through the playoffs with a perfect record.

The Bees were notified of the Midwest League Commissioner's decision to award them with the title as they were waiting in the visitor's clubhouse in South Bend's Coveleski Stadium. The celebration started shortly thereafter, culminating with a dog pile on "the Cove's" soggy infield. The Bees then boarded the team Bus for the ride back to Burlington, where they were greeted by a police escort and dozens of fans awaiting their arrival at Community Field.

The championship was the first for the Bees' franchise since 1999, and the first as an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. In fact, 1999 was also the last year in which a Royals full season affiliate won a title, when both the Wichita Wranglers and Wilmington Blue Rocks won their respective leagues.

Although the series was shortened by the weather, the Bees left little doubt about their superiority on the field. After sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs with four straight wins, the Bees rolled over the South Bend Silver Hawks in the first two games of the championship series. They outscored the Silver Hawks by a combined score of 18-0, and Bees' pitchers yielded a total of just six hits (while the offense racked up 24) in the two shutouts.

The Bees entered the playoffs on fire. A win on July 31 over the Dayton Dragons began a seven-game winning streak, and the club topped that later in August by winning nine straight. The Bees captured the Midwest League's Western Division second half title by winning 20 of 29 games in August, which was a remarkable turnaround after the club finished the first half in the division's basement with a 30-39 record. With a 43-26 record in the second half, the Bees won the division by 3.5 games over the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Indeed, this Burlington team was clearly the best the Bees have fielded since affiliating with the Royals prior to the 2001 season. The 2008 Bees had the highest team OPS (.722) and second-best ERA (3.50) of any Royals' affiliated Bees club. The Bees clubbed 112 home runs this year, also a record since 2001, and more than twice as many as the last Bees team to qualify for the postseason in 2002.

Several Bees had notable seasons. The Royals' 2007 first round pick, Mike Moustakas, rebounded from a dreadful start to hit .272/.337/.468 with a Midwest League-leading 22 home runs. First basemen Jason Taylor and Clint Robinson both smacked 17 homers, and outfielder David Lough hit 16 while setting the pace at the top of the lineup.

Nick Van Stratten finally got a chance to move up to full season ball after spending the last two summers in short season leagues, and he made the most of his opportunity. He battled through injuries, but in 40 games, the 23-year old KC native hit .345/.400/.489.

The Royals' 2008 second round pick, second baseman Johnny Giavotella, was the first member of the Royals' 2008 draft class to play in full season ball. Indeed, it might not be a coincidence that the Bees turned their season around shortly after his arrival in June. The 21-year old New Orleans product hit .299/.355/.421 in his debut season, and he came up big for the Bees in the championship series, going 5-for-8 with two home runs and five RBIs.

Jamar Walton was excellent in the season's second half, following up a July in which he hit .316 with an even better August, when he hit .363. In the playoffs, Walton hit three home runs, including two in the championship series.

On the mound, Alex Caldera led the staff in victories, strikeouts, and innings pitched, going 12-6 with a 2.89 ERA in 149.1 innings. He carried that success into the postseason, where he made two starts, logging a 1.64 ERA while winning what turned out to be the Bees' final game of the season. Daniel Gutierrez missed over a month while nursing an injury, be he didn't skip a beat upon his return, finishing the season with a 2.70 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 90 innings pitched. Gutierrez was also outstanding in two playoff starts, going 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA while striking out 17 batters in 12 innings.

Southpaw Danny Duffy was a late arrival to the Bees out of extended spring training, but he was arguably the Bees' most dominant pitcher when he was on the mound. Duffy was shut down a bit early because the Royals were concerned about him throwing too many innings, but he finished the season with an 8-4 record and a miniscule 2.20 ERA. He fanned 102 batters while surrendering just 56 hits and 25 walks in 81.2 innings pitched. Matt Mitchell also had a solid sophomore season, going 8-8 with a 3.47 ERA in 116.2 innings pitched. He was particularly good down the stretch, logging a 2.25 ERA in four August starts.

The Bees also boasted an excellent bullpen. Zach Peterson and Juan Abreu both struck out over a batter per inning in over 75 innings pitched while combining for 12 saves. Joe Augustine, an undrafted free agent signed last year, was the pen's workhorse, leading the unit in saves (9) and innings pitched (105) while compiling a 3.77 ERA. Brandon Sisk was a late arrival to the club, but he was nearly untouchable in August. The 23-year old lefty threw 20.2 innings in the season's final month, striking out 32 batters while compiling an incredible 0.44 ERA. Sisk also saved three of the Bees' first four playoff wins.

All told, the 2008 Bees were an outstanding club, and the prospect of watching these players move up through the Royals' system together should be enough to get any Royals fan excited.

Where do the 2008 Bees rank among other excellent Royals minor league teams over the past decade? Subscribers, be sure to check out RC's Top 10.

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