The Monastery---In 2013, the St. Francis Friars overcame long odds to reach their first-ever BARB World Series a year after finishing in the second division. Now, in 2014, they are almost unrecognizable from the 2012 club in terms of makeup...and outlook.
Having never won as many as 90 games, last year's club needed a big final push from veteran OF Carlos Beltran in the final week to pass the Casselton Horned Toads. They drew the Worcester Eliminators in the 2013 playoffs, a club which led all of BARB in runs scored and posted a league record 111 wins, but somehow managed to turn it into a short series when their Koji Uehara-led bullpen outperformed the loop’s best relief corps. And, while they fell in six games in the 2013 Series, helping Frostbite Falls to its sixth title, they flexed impressive muscle at the plate in part due to the clutch hitting of new 1B Chris Davis.
Now, in the off-season, they have put another controversy behind them after charges of impiety and anti-Catholic bigotry was laid against the ball club in light of the franchise’s name and its past association with a renegade monastic order that thought Vatican II was a liberal mistake. Rechristened the Kansans and with its controlling interests no longer dominated by theological disputes, the St. Francis club has emerged in recent weeks as the club to watch in 2014, both in terms of player development and on the field.
No club ended up exercising more picks in this year’s Draft or moving more big-name talent in the off-season than St. Francis. The Kansans were concerned that they had emptied their cupboard somewhat in order to reach the post-season, a concern that grew in some quarters as off-season deals saw the ballclub trade promising young SS Xander Bogaerts to New England.
But, thanks in part to packaging away a potential future ace in Michael Wacha to Worcester, St. Francis accumulated plenty of extra picks in this year’s Draft. As a result, they pulled off an absolute haul that easily rivaled this year’s amateur draft in MLB:
LHP Brady Aiken (1st overall selection)
C Kyle Schwarber (4th overall, first college bat taken)
SS Nick Gordon (5th overall, first high school player taken)
RHP Aaron Nola (7th overall, first college RHP taken)
SS Trea Turner (13th overall, first college SS taken)
RHP Touki Toussaint (16th overall)
LHP Brandon Finnegan (17th overall)
RHP Nick Burdi (46th overall)
The club also added veteran OF Coco Crisp and Jayson Werth, backup C Dionner Navarro, veteran 3B Aramis Ramirez and a potential ace, RHP Steven Strasburg, to go with the club’s core: C Salvador Perez, 1B Davis, 3B Pedro Alvarez. OF Shin-Soo Choo and Jose Bautista.
ST. FRANCIS’S AMAZING SWING THROUGH THE EAST
While the draft harvest was rich, most of it was unlikely to have any impact on this year’s campaign. But, as the previous list of core players shows, the 2014 edition of the St. Francis franchise is a veteran-laden club that is truly built to ‘win now’. Thus, a wave of early injuries or slow starts in the regular lineup could be psychologically damaging to the entire organization.
But, for the first time in many seasons, St. Francis has avoided any serious injuries in the first two months of the season, and in the last few weeks, they finally hit their stride.
Already leading all of BARB with 76 round-trippers, the club began a torrid road trip through the Eastern Division. Widely-considered the most challenging of BARB’s pennant races, the ‘Division of Death’ has produced eight championships and represented the first real test of whether or not the 2014 Kansans could hang with the league’s top clubs.
The road trip began with St. Francis scoring 18 runs in Brooklyn, sweeping three games from the Mother Of All Ballclubs in their own park. The Kansans then held the newly-rechristened NorCal Pirates to only four runs in three games for their second straight series sweep. A great beginning---but now came the real challenge: two games against the defending world champion Squirrels, in their own home park of Rocky Top.
The last time they had met, Frostbite Falls had ridden the hot bat of Austin Jackson and exploited some shaky left-handed relief from, among others, Craig Breslow. In the 2013 World Series, St. Francis had been unable to counter with much in the way of right-handed pop, with both Jose Bautista and the (since-released) Carlos Quentin out with injuries.
What a difference a new year makes! Strasburg (5-2, 2.93) fanned six (including Jackson) in outlasting Cole Hamels (1-3, 4.54) as the visitors rallied to bat around in the seventh after trailing 1-0 through six, winning the opener, 4-1. In the second game, Davis and Alvarez both homered off Joulys Chacin (2-1, 2.71) to chase the Squirrels starter in the third, giving R.A. Dickey (5-3, 5.43) all the runs he would need early, in a 9-2 triumph!
Eight straight on the road against Eastern Division clubs, eight wins! As this went to press, St. Francis had extended that winning streak to ten games by taking two more at home from Brooklyn, bringing their mark to a BARB-best 36-10. “It’s a thrill to see the pieces falling together in some ways,” said club owner Scott Hatfield. “Now we just need to keep our bullpen fresh and our veterans in one piece. No one wins a pennant in May, but we are going to try to build off this run and return to the post-season.”