For the fourth straight season, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals opened the year with a series against the San Antonio Missions in a matchup that although nobody realized it at the time, pitted the defending champs against the club that would wrest control of the league crown as the 2011 season reached its completion. Five months later, the Naturals secured a second-half North Division championship for the fourth time in as many seasons. Though the club fell short in its defense of its Championship, the 2011 season was packed full of memorable moments, notable achievements and season-long thrills for fans at Arvest Ballpark.
The Naturals began their title defense on Thursday, Apr. 7, hosting the Missions and Corpus Christi Hooks in a six-game homestand. The opener did not end in the home team’s favor, as the Naturals fell by a 3-2 score. But the team avenged that early loss over the next three days, notching three consecutive walk-off wins against the Missions and Hooks. Included in that stretch was a pair of extra-inning victories as well as Mario Lisson‘s walk-off homer on Apr. 9 – the first Naturals home game to end in that fashion since 2009. The Naturals played five consecutive one-run games for the first time in team history and finished the homestand with a 5-1 record.
Season of Streaks
That early-season five-game winning streak proved to be a sign of things to come for the 2011 Naturals, who compiled their 73-64 overall record in a roundabout manner. This season, the Naturals put together eight different winning streaks of at least four games and endured four streaks of at least that length. Two end-of-season streaks stand out. As play began on Aug. 25, the Naturals rested six games ahead of the Tulsa Drillers in the second half standings, only to see that lead reduced to a single game following five straight losses. The two clubs were then tied at the end of August before the Naturals bounced back to rip off four straight wins to clinch the division and secure a playoff spot.
Lights Out Relief
The Naturals began the 2011 season with a pair of Texas League veterans on their roster. Mario Santiago spent 2010 in the team’s starting rotation, while Blake Johnson had appeared for the club in each of the team’s first three seasons in Springdale. The two players opened the year in the Naturals’ pen and dominated the circuit over the season’s first month. In his first eight appearances of the season – including a spot start – Santiago posted a 1.46 ERA and held his opponents to a .167 batting average. Incredibly, Johnson was even better. The right-hander did not allow an earned run until May 6 – his final appearance before a promotion to Triple-A. Johnson allowed just 14 hits in 21 innings, recording a miniscule 0.43 ERA in the process.
Later in the season, 21-year-old right-hander Kelvin Herrera joined the club following a promotion from Advanced-A Wilmington. In his first full season as a reliever, Herrera featured an upper-90s fastball as well as an impressive arsenal of secondary pitches. After issuing an intentional walk in his first outing in Northwest Arkansas, Herrera did not walk a batter in 14 consecutive appearances. He walked just six batters – two intentionally – while striking out 40 before a call-up to Omaha, where he continued his dominance with the Storm Chasers.
Over the season’s final two months, Blaine Hardy emerged as one of the club’s go-to relievers. Joining the team from Omaha in early July, Hardy posted a 1.59 ERA in 19 games with the Naturals, recording nine saves in 10 regular-season chances. Perhaps most impressive was Hardy’s ability to work extended outings. The southpaw pitched at least two innings in 12 of his Double-A appearances, recording six three-inning saves.
Left-hander Will Smith was a fixture in the starting rotation from beginning to end, one of two Naturals to make a team-high 27 starts in 2011. Smith led all Texas League hurlers with 161 1/3 innings pitched and 13 wins. In particular, Smith excelled during the second half of the season, posting an 8-2 individual record after Jul. 1. He strengthened as the season went on, saving his best work for August, a month in which he allowed just nine earned runs in 42 1/3 innings pitched, good for a miniscule 1.91 ERA. That performance earned him Texas League Pitcher of the Month honors.
Like Smith, Chris Dwyer made 27 starts and saved his best baseball for the latter part of the season. From Jul. 21 to Aug. 17, Dwyer won five times in a span of six starts, firing a quality start in each of those wins. He struck out eight or more batters in five separate games, tying a franchise record with 10 punch-outs on Aug. 5. Overall, Dwyer fanned 126 batters in 2011, third-most among all Texas League pitchers.
Salvador Slams His Way to KC
Catcher Salvador Perez began the season as one of the youngest players in the league, a 20-year-old with no experience above A-ball. After experiencing the ups and downs of any player challenged with a new level, Perez had a series to remember against the Springfield Cardinals in late July. Playing in three of the four games, Perez went 9-for-12 with two homers – including a grand slam – and 11 RBI. Just for good measure, he cranked another grand slam on Jul. 26 against Tulsa and earned a promotion to Triple-A one day after that. Perez spent roughly two weeks in Omaha before a call-up to Kansas City, where he has served as the Royals’ primary catcher ever since.
The middle of the season brought with it two of the Naturals’ most productive individual months, as Tim Smith slugged his way through June and Jamie Romak did the same in July. Smith hit safely in all but five games during June, collecting a 12-game hitting streak en route to a .337 batting average and 26 RBI for the month. The left-hand-hitting outfielder hit for power as well, slugging six doubles, a triple and five homers in June. Not to be outdone, Romak hit .330 during July and cranked 10 home runs in that month alone, easily the most by any one Natural player in a month this season.
On the Basepaths
From the beginning of the season, the Naturals showed a tendency to be aggressive with runners on base. That lasted for the entire year, as the team led the Texas League with 205 stolen bases – at least 49 more than any other team. The club featured two of the top three stolen base men in the circuit, as Anthony Seratelli swiped 35 and Derrick Robinson nabbed 55 to lead the league by 19. Robinson broke his own team record of 50, which he had set during the 2010 season. In addition, it marked the fourth consecutive season in which the outfielder has led his league in stolen bases. Playing with Wilmington, Robinson stole 62 bases in 2008 and 69 in 2009 to the Carolina League on both occasions.
Stolen bases were just one of many of Seratelli’s contributions to the Naturals this season. In his second season with the team, the ever-versatile Seratelli appeared in all nine spots in the batting order at some point, played 70 games at first base, 25 at second base and 31 in the outfield (both in left and right field). In his team-high 129 games, Seratelli hit .282 with a team-high total of 75 walks, leading to a .392 on-base percentage that also led the squad. Seratelli notched a five-hit game and a four-walk game, and was named a mid-season Texas League All-Star, a body of work that led to his much-deserved selection as Naturals Player of the Year.
In the second half of the season, the Naturals got a boost from a pair of 21-year-old players who excelled at Advanced-A Wilmington in the season’s first few months. Versatile infielder Rey Navarro hit .285 with 17 doubles, seven triples and eight homers in 72 games with the Blue Rocks while serving as the team’s primary second baseman. Upon his promotion to Northwest Arkansas, Navarro spent a significant amount of time at third base, a position at which he had only played five games during his entire professional career. Working through the adjustment, Navarro hit .271 in his first taste of Double-A.
Navarro made his Natural debut on June 30. Three days later, right-hander Jake Odorizzi joined the Naturals from Wilmington as well. This season was Odorizzi’s first in the Royals organization following his acquisition as part of the trade that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee. Odorizzi dominated the Carolina League, racking up 103 strikeouts in just 78 1/3 innings pitched. The 21-year-old experienced ups and downs in the Texas League – holding opponents to a .254 batting average but yielding 13 homers in 12 starts – but put it all together in his last two starts. On Sep. 2, with the Naturals’ playoff position in flux, Odorizzi took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in a shutout performance against the Arkansas Travelers. Odorizzi took the mound again in game two of the Division Series against those same Travelers and tossed six scoreless innings in a game the Naturals eventually lost, 1-0.
Appreciating the Alums
2011 will be remembered as the first season that Naturals fans could turn on their television sets and be guaranteed to see a smattering of Naturals suited up for Kansas City on a night-to-night basis. Former first baseman Eric Hosmer blistered pitching at Triple-A Omaha for about six weeks, earning the call to the Royals as their everyday first baseman. The Naturals’ penultimate playoff hero a season ago, Hosmer never looked back once he reached Kauffman Stadium, swinging his way into the heart of the Royals’ order and mounting a campaign that will likely net him more than a handful of votes for the American League’s Rookie of the Year award. His fellow former Naturals Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella soon followed and entered the lineup, as did Perez and several pitchers from last season’s club as fans in Kansas City finally saw the first wave of talent that exists in a farm system ranked as the top in all of baseball entering this season.
There were also a bountiful stable of ex-Naturals at Triple-A Omaha, who helped that club, newly rebranded as the Storm Chasers, post their best season record in years, make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Once there, they won both their playoff series including a three-game sweep of Sacramento, a club which featured many ex-foes of the Naturals who had competed with the Midland RockHounds against the Naturals in the past two seasons. Down the stretch, it was key contributions from Naturals representing all four seasons in Northwest Arkansas as Kila Ka’aihue, Irving Falu, Cody Clark, David Lough, Herrera, and Mike Montgomery formed part of the nucleus for Omaha’s title team.
A Night to Remember
Of all that happened in the Naturals’ 2011 journey, the events of July 19 almost certainly produced the most lasting memories for those involved. Taking the mound against the Travelers in North Little Rock, Will Smith opened the game with five perfect innings. After issuing back-to-back walks to open the sixth, the Naturals backed Smith up by turning the first triple play in the team’s four-year history. Out of that jam, Smith spun another hitless inning before handing the ball over to Kelvin Herrera, who fired two perfect frames to complete the Naturals’ first-ever no-hitter. In turning a triple play and pitching a no-hitter in the same game, the Naturals accomplished a feat that, to the best of our knowledge, had never been done in the 100-plus-year history of the Texas League.
The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and play at state-of-the-art Arvest Ballpark, located in Springdale. Visit our website, nwanaturals.com, for information on season tickets and ticket plans.