A calamity in the final inning of the season kept 2019 from being the best year in the Tulsa Drillers history that dates back to 1977. The Drillers had their best regular-season record (78-61), won a third consecutive division title for the first time, hosted the Texas League All-Star Game and had a notable attendance increase. Also, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and the 2019 Minor League Player of the Year wore a Drillers uniform. Below are some of the memorable moments and players from a real good — and so close to being the greatest — year of Drillers baseball.
Most valuable players
First half: Gavin Lux, the Minor League Player of the Year, was among the Texas League leaders in most hitting categories when he was promoted from Tulsa to Triple-A Oklahoma City in late June. The middle infielder batted .313 with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs in 64 games. His performance was a continuation from last year, when he was a key performer during the stretch run and in the playoffs. He was called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 2.
Second half: Connor Wong batted .349 with nine homers and 31 RBIs in 40 games after being promoted from Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. His game-winning hit on Aug. 24 ignited an 8-2 stretch at the end of the regular season. He had six three-hit games in a seven-game span to help the Drillers win the North second-half title. The catcher-infielder then hit safely in all 10 postseason games, with three homers and 11 RBIs. From behind the plate, he shut down the opposition’s running game.
Edwin Uceta, promoted from Single-A Rancho Cucamonga in early June, had an impressive debut, was horrible in his next two starts, but was then nearly unhittable over his last 15 outings with a 1.55 ERA, never allowing more than three runs. The 21-year-old right-hander was the Drillers’ leading winner with a 7-2 record and 3.21 ERA. All of his wins came in his last nine starts. In the postseason, he won the decisive Game 5 of the North Division finals against Arkansas and overall allowed one run in 10 innings. Runner-up is Markus Solbach, who was 5-1 in seven regular-season starts after joining the Drillers in late July and won both of his playoff starts.
Branch Rickey Award winners
Gavin Lux (batter) and JoJo Gray (pitcher) were the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey Award winners as the organization’s top minor leaguers of the year. They were honored Saturday at Dodger Stadium. Lux batted a combined .347 with 26 home runs and 76 RBIs for Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Gray was a combined 11-2 with a 2.28 ERA for Tulsa, Rancho Cucamonga and Single-A Great Lakes. He was 3-2 with a 2.75 ERA in nine regular-season games for Tulsa.
Parker Curry pitched eight innings as he combined with Jordan Sheffield on a 1-0 victory over Northwest Arkansas in a snappy 2-hour, 4-minute game on Aug. 1. Drew Avans hit an RBI single in the eighth. That began a 22-10 stretch to end the regular season.
Infielder Zach McKinstry, after batting .193 in 25 games for Tulsa in 2018, was a major surprise. He hit .279 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs in 95 games before being promoted Aug. 3 to Oklahoma City, where he batted .382 in 26 games.
Shortstop Jeter Downs, named for former Yankees star Derek Jeter, batted .347 with nine homers (all against Amarillo) and 18 RBIs in 22 games after joining the Drillers in late August. He would have been regarded as the hitting star of the Texas League Championship Series Game 5 if the bullpen hadn’t collapsed.
“He’s going to be a special player, only 21, to do what he’s doing at the plate and defensively not many guys can do,” Drillers manager Scott Hennessey said. “He’s going to get bigger and stronger and he’s going to be a big leaguer for the Dodgers for a long time.”
For the first time, the Drillers had two players in a season hit three homers in a game. Cody Thomas, the former Oklahoma quarterback, did it on April 17 at Springfield, and Downs accomplished the feat at Amarillo in TLCS Game 2 — when the Drillers also set an all-time Tulsa pro record with nine home runs. The Drillers had the TL home run champion for the second consecutive year — Thomas hit 23.
It was similar to 2018 as the Drillers were 71-4 when they had a lead going into the final inning despite again never really having a dependable closer for an extended time. It really didn’t hurt them until the final game. Nolan Long, the loser in the fateful TLCS Game 5, and Sheffield led with six saves each.
The Drillers tied last year’s team record for most home games (76) in a season and enjoyed their second-most success ever at ONEOK Field, 46-30. But both the home opener and finale were losses after blowing ninth-inning leads.
On July 10, Springfield’s Justin Toerner derailed a Drillers ninth-inning rally when he went over the right-field wall and into the Tulsa bullpen to rob Cody Thomas of a home run on a game-ending play. On Aug. 12, Toerner did it again, robbing Thomas to end the game at ONEOK Field. That was recognized by ESPN as the “SportsCenter” play of the day.
On Aug. 14, Thomas’ three-run, two-out blast gave the Drillers a 5-4 victory over the Springfield Cardinals at ONEOK Field. With the Drillers down 4-1 in the ninth, Connor Wong started the two-out rally with a homer. Chris Parmelee followed with a double and Donovan Casey walked to bring up Thomas, who ended the game with a towering shot well over the right-field wall, igniting a massive celebration. Toerner, who had robbed Thomas twice previously to end games, was injured making another incredible catch earlier in the night. But not even Toerner, even if he had been in the game, could have brought back that Thomas blast.
The Drillers hosted the Texas League All-Star Game on June 25 and a crowd of 7,449 saw the South defeat the North 4-1. Former Oklahoma State catcher Collin Theroux hit a two-run homer and Midland teammate Luis Barrera was the MVP with three hits. Barrera, however, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury two days later. The highlight of the night for Tulsa fans was watching Chris Parmelee and teammate Thomas put on an impressive show in the home run derby, won by Parmelee.
In a game very similar to the TLCS finale, the Drillers took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning on a Sunday afternoon, May 19, at ONEOK Field. Arkansas, however, scored six in the ninth for an 8-3 win. Former Bishop Kelley and OSU infielder Donnie Walton had the winning two-run single with two outs. That came on the heels of two extra-inning losses to the Travelers, who were never threatened again in the first-half race, and dropped Tulsa to 21-21.
Kershaw in Tulsa
Once it was announced that three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw would make a rehab start in Tulsa on April 9, there was the biggest rush for tickets in Drillers history. It was an electric atmosphere and a sellout crowd of 8,317 saw Kershaw pitch six strong innings as the Drillers rallied with two runs in the ninth for a 3-2 victory over Springfield. DJ Peters delivered a bases-loaded, one-out RBI single to win it.
“It was a fun environment, a good place to play, really nice facilities for a Double-A park. It was good,” Kershaw said. “Obviously you don’t want to do a rehab start, but if you do, it’s a great spot, the fans were out there tonight, it was great. I enjoyed it.”
On April 14, Mitchell White combined with Parker Curry, Marshall Kasowski and Louis Head on a no-hitter in a 1-0, 10-inning loss at Arkansas. The Drillers were only 9-21 against Arkansas in the regular season, including 0-6 in extra innings.
Henry Rowengartner expressed concern while warming up in the Tulsa Drillers bullpen on May 23 for his first pitching appearance since being the “Rookie of the Year” in 1993. “I don’t have my floater today,” Rowengartner said while pitching coach Dave Borkowski observed.
So after taking the mound following the National Anthem, Rowengartner (portrayed by actor Thomas Ian Nicholas) was pulled by Drillers manager Scott Hennessey after four warmup pitches, including two floaters that missed the strike zone.
”He just didn’t have it today,” Drillers president/general manager Mike Melega said with tongue in cheek. “We’re on a three-game winning streak. I think Scott made the right call pulling him.” For Hennessey, the scripted move was the first time he has been booed by the home fans in his three seasons with the Drillers. The first 1,000 fans received Rowengartner bobbleheads when they entered ONEOK Field.
Tulsa’s Dustin May set a ONEOK Field record with 14 strikeouts in seven innings on June 22 against Amarillo. He was then promoted to Oklahoma City, pitched five games there, and moved up to the Dodgers, picking up his first major league win on Aug. 13.
Drillers outfielder Drew Avans produced many of them after being promoted from Rancho Cucamonga on June 16. His first Drillers hit was a game-winning single in the 10th inning against Amarillo on June 22. Avans pulled off a rarity with a straight steal of home June 30 at Arkansas. On July 19, his first Drillers homer was only Tulsa’s second inside-the-parker in 10 years at ONEOK Field. And on Aug. 29 at Amarillo, he tossed a perfect fourth inning to pick up the win in his pro pitching debut.
For the second consecutive year, the Drillers met the San Diego Padres’ Double-A affiliate in the TLCS. In 2018, the Drillers had two walk-off wins in the three-game sweep over San Antonio. This year, the Drillers had three walk-off wins in seven regular-season home games over Amarillo. But the Sod Poodles avenged those losses with seven runs in the ninth inning as they rallied for an 8-3 victory in the decisive Game 5 of the TLCS. Nine Amarillo players and manager Phillip Wellman were with San Antonio last year.
“I have nothing but respect for the Dodger organization,” Wellman said. “Growing up as a kid, I was a Dodger fan. I have an immense amount of respect for Scott Hennessey. He’s a class act, he runs a good ship, his players are a direct reflection of him and they play the game right. If you beat them you know you’ve earned it.”
Said Hennessey: “Looking back at it, we developed a lot of players, we got some to the big leagues, the guys fought all year — that’s all you can do.”
The Drillers will host the opener April 9 against Frisco.