When manager Joe DePastino entered spring training, he had no idea the team he was about to helm. Now a second year man, DePastino knows both sides of the game-- winning and losing.
"The biggest thing for me last season was learning and knowing exactly how many pitches each pitcher can throw that day and learning how to use the bullpen." DePastino said.
Last season, the 'Caps rotation was mixed with good enough talent to earn promotions. Though an honor for the pitchers and the team, these promotions ended up hurting the 'Caps who ended up third in the Midwest League with an overall record of 72-65. It's easy to say 2008 was a rebuilding year, but when you're a team that has five league titles in your 15 years of existence, it's hard to take a backseat in the league easily.
"We're hungry," longtime Whitecaps fan Joseph Vanderlaan said. "Every year you wait to see what kind of team the organization fields. Sometimes you get disappointed, but for us here in West Michigan, we like to win."
7,598 fans piled into the park for opening day at Fifth Third Ballpark to see their new 2009 Whitecaps. After the 'Caps shutdown the Silver Hawks 5-2, the hype rose all across the state for this new team. So who are these new players that glisten reflections of a certain 2007 championship team?
A few veterans return to West Michigan this year. Ronnie Bourquin is the leader in the field. Switching from third to first base, Bourquin comes back to the Whitecaps to perfect his game in the field.
"Bourquin returning to West Michigan was strictly a baseball decision," said Dan Lunetta, who is the Tigers' director of Minor League Operations. "We feel there's no reason why Ronnie can't contribute at this level.
Bourquin hit .235 with 96 hits and 46 RBI in the 118 games he played last season. With another year under his belt, Bourquin gains not only experience but a sense of maturity too. Last year, he was pulled over for speeding for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. After blowing a blood alcohol level of 0.20, Bourquin would go through fines and a 15-day stint in jail.
"It's water under the bridge," Bourquin claimed. "I did what I had to do, and I'm hoping to move forward."
The Ohio State product put his past behind him and has fit well into the role as the team's leader. Currently he's hitting .308 with 38 RBI, and is a monster against left-handed pitchers, hitting .389. With his troubles now in the past, Bourquin has emerged as a new man in 2009.
Another player who has taken a step in performance is infielder Brandon Douglas. Selected in last year's draft in the 11th round, Douglas took no time showing the Tigers organization what he is capable of. He spend most of his time in Onetona, where he earned a promotion and player of the year. The Iowa native's promotion to the 'Caps in 2008, gave West Michigan a glimpse of what was to come this season.
"I started getting comfortable in Florida and then I had to go to Oneonta and just started getting comfortable there and hitting it," Douglas said. "I was hoping that it would carry over to West Michigan and it did."
Boy did it ever. Aside from hitting .341 in 52 games, Douglas is a sure-bet to bring in runs. He is hitting .343 with runners on and .321 with runners in scoring position. Douglas is a valuable asset to the team and has earned himself, along with Bourquin, an all-star selection in this year's game in Clinton, Iowa. Douglas is emerging as a West Michigan star, and gives homage to players that have gone before him like Brandon Inge, Joel Zumaya and Ryan Rayburn just to name a few.
"Everything I heard from people was this was the place you want to be." Douglas added.
After Douglas in the three-spot, William Nowlin and Jordan Lennerton compliment the lineup in the cleanup and clutch, providing West Michigan's own "Murderer's Row".
Though the bats are speaking for the 'Caps, it's the rotation that's been getting all the praise. Matt Hoffman provided impressive numbers before he left, but current all-star selections, Casey Crosby, Tyler Stohr, Mauricio Robles and Jared Gayhart. While Crosby lights up hitters with his combos, Stohr and Gayhart provide strong support in the bullpen.
"What has helped me is playing in he moment," Gayhart said. "Taking a pitch at a time."
June 6th, fireball southpaw, Robles was placed on the disabled list with a blistered hand. Though the injury might keep him out of a spot start, it shouldn't effect his all-star status as some may have thought. Regardless, this young talent is anything but average. The combined 554.1 innings pitched from West Michigan pitchers, is kind of scary knowing that in all those innings, they have maintained a 3.54 ERA and a plethora of impressive strikeouts that make a spectator wonder what's in the water in West Michigan. If you want to thank someone for the pitchers' performance, thank pitching coach Mark Johnson. Of all the talent that has came from his pitchers in season past, it won't be long before Mr. Johnson get's his shot at a promotion of some sorts. The man is nothing short of a genius with his boys.
Tailing Fort Wayne in the Eastern Division, the Whitecaps, fans and even Detroit is considering title talks once again... Knock on wood.