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TEAM DIRECTION THRILLS EMS.

Byline: Steve Mims The Register-Guard

Twelve hours after the season ended, Eugene Emeralds general manager Bob Beban smiled as he reflected on his 22nd season with the team.

"It was great, one of the most enjoyable seasons we've had in a long time," Beban said Friday morning. "The staff was great. Target, Razor and Benji, as they prefer to be called, worked hard and the players responded to them."

That's manager Roy Howell (Target), pitching coach Dave Rajsich (Razor) and hitting instructor Ben Oglivie (Benji). The threesome combined to bring 29 years of coaching experience in the minors and 32 years of playing experience in the major leagues to the Emeralds.

"I think the Padres' theory of giving us a veteran coaching staff was a big, big boost to this team," Beban said. "Talent-wise, this team might have been a little short, but this staff brought them to their maximum."

The Ems finished the season 39-37, giving the organization back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1986-87. Eugene finished second in the Northwest League West Division, four games back of Salem-Keizer (43-33).

"We came up just a little short, but that's fine," Beban said. "All I ever want each year is a .500 team, and we were two games over. It was a fun year, the fans enjoyed the players and the personality of the players was there."

Eugene ranked third in the league in attendance at 130,657 for an average of 4,037 per night. That is an increase from 127,733 in 2002.

The Ems worked overtime in their season finale Thursday before defeating Vancouver 4-3 in 13 innings. That victory summed up what Howell saw from his team all season.

"The bottom line is what stands out in my mind is that this team went out each day and played for 27 outs," Howell said after the finale. "Tonight it was about 37 outs, but they played until the game was over and I appreciate that. If they had a strikeout, or the ball went though their legs, or they threw a home-run pitch, that's irrelevant compared to them going out and busting their butt for the whole game."

The Ems got off to one of the best starts in franchise history at 8-1, but then a six-game losing streak started what would become an up-and-down season.

Eugene was in first place from July 10-27 before being swept in a five-game series at Spokane.

The Ems lost a lot of power during that series as catcher Omar Falcon suffered a season-ending hand injury and Colt Morton was promoted to Fort Wayne, a long-season A affiliate of the Padres. Those two had combined to hit half of Eugene's 24 home runs up to that point in the season.

"We didn't lose too many impact players during the year," Beban said. "We lost Colt Morton and I thought that hurt us a bit, but it was in his contract that he had to go to a long-season team after starting here. I thought that was unfortunate, his agent should know better than that. It is not in the players' best interest to move up ahead of themselves."

On Aug. 14, the Emeralds were involved in a bench-clearing brawl at Everett that resulted in 17 suspensions, including eight Emeralds who had to sit out three games apiece.

The Ems returned to first place on Aug. 17, but fell out of that spot with a four-game losing streak that started on Aug. 19. Salem-Keizer swept a three-game series against Eugene to take a four-game lead in the division on Aug. 23, and the Ems got no closer than two games the rest of the way.

"You don't know what to expect at this level, when we got here we had six guys who we had only seen for two days," Howell said. "It is a matter of getting them used to the system and playing every day and trying to blend together the new and old to see what we can come up with. You look at all the teams in this league, and we were within four or five games of everybody."

Actually, East Division champion Spokane finished 11 games ahead of Eugene, but the Emeralds had the fourth-best record in the eight-team league.

Pitching was the strength of the team, as Eugene ranked second in the league with a 3.70 ERA.

Starting pitcher Sean Thompson was named league left-handed pitcher of the year after going 7-1 with a 2.48 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 80 innings pitched. He ranked second in the league in wins and strikeouts and was fifth in ERA.

The bullpen was led by Eddie Bonine, who was named co-right-handed reliever of the year after ranking third in the league with 14 saves.

"The pitchers were rock solid," Howell said. "Everyone got used and everyone got exposed to different roles to see where they fit. All our guys from college were starters in college, and some of those guys went into the bullpen and fit into roles they had never done before. It was a great learning experience."

The offense was led by center fielder Brian Wahlbrink, who was voted to the all-star team before leaving the team in the final week of the season to join Fort Wayne.

Wahlbrink ranked third in the league in hits (81), fourth in stolen bases (19) and ninth in batting average (.300). Second baseman Peeter Ramos was tied for third in the league with six triples.

The Ems have been a short-season A affiliate of the Padres for three seasons, and Beban continues to enjoy the relationship with San Diego.

"It's fantastic," Beban said. "They enjoy being here, and they give us a competitive team each year. Two years ago we were OK, last year was great, and this year was great."

Howell said he enjoyed his first season as a manager, and the man who was known for his hardball style of play during an 11-year career in the big leagues joked that his demeanor on the field surprised his whole staff.

"If you had put a bet down in Vegas that I would not get thrown out of a game, you would have won a lot of money," Howell said.

Howell's style seemed to rub off on his players.

"It was hardball right up to the end, so I tip my hat to all of them," he said. "No question that every player on this team learned something this year and improved."

CAPTION(S):

Sean Thompson was named left-handed starting pitcher of the year in the Northwest League, finishing 7-1 with a 2.48 earned-run average. Roy Howell managed the Ems to a winning record in his first year in Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Padres' product pleases the minor-league club; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 7, 2003
Words:1128
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