SPRINGDALE -- The Northwest Arkansas Naturals started the season with three of the top prospects in the Kansas City Royals' organization on their roster.
Standouts Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez were all gone by August. The Naturals had to fight and get a little lucky just to make the postseason. But they took full advantage of their opportunity.
Northwest Arkansas swept North Division champion Wichita in three straight games in the best-of-five championship series to claim the Class AA-Central title, sealing the deal with a 6-2 road win Friday night.
"It was a wild ride, right to the end," Naturals Manager Scott Thorman said. "It was pretty cool. What we were most proud about were these guys came together and finished strong in a true team effort with pitching, defense and timely hitting.
"I think that's what is most satisfying about all this is knowing we did it with many moving parts. You know, credit to the organization, those guys came in ready to play. No matter where they came from they slid right in. We had excellent team chemistry for a team that changed over so frequently."
Only two of the starting nine in the postseason -- left fielder Brewer Hicklen and second baseman Clay Dungan -- played in 100 games for the Naturals this season.
Hicklen hit a pair of tie-breaking home runs in the Wichita series, including a grand slam in the clincher. The 25-year-old hit just .243 for the season but was strong down the stretch, hitting .304 with 9 home runs, 27 RBI and 20 stolen bases in August and September.
The Naturals' bullpen was also outstanding in the postseason, as relievers gave up just two earned runs over 15 innings in the three playoff games combined.
Vinnie Pasquantino came to Northwest Arkansas when Pratto got the bump to Class AAA. He's done nothing but hit all season.
The left-handed hitting first baseman hit .291 with 20 doubles, 13 home runs and 42 RBI in 61 games at Quad Cities. But he followed that with .310, 17 doubles, 11 home runs and 42 RBI in 55 games for Northwest Arkansas and finished the regular season tied for second in all of the minor leagues with 37 doubles, third in extra-base hits (64) and sixth in total bases (246).
Northwest Arkansas needed a win and losses by Arkansas and Frisco on the final day of the regular season to just to make its first postseason appearance since 2016. The Naturals claimed their second league title in the club's history. They won the Texas League title in 2010 with a star-studded core group that would go on to help the Royals to back-to-back World Series appearances and a world championship on 2015.
J.J. Picollo, recently promoted to Royals general manager, said on multiple occasions it was important for that 2010 group to have success together in the minor leagues to build for the future. Thorman agreed.
"We all know this is a business and everyone is trying to get to the big leagues," Thorman said. "But I'm a firm believer the better the team does, the better the individuals do as well. It balances itself out. I think it's an important step in their development. We're proud of these guys. It's something they'll always remember."
Thorman, who is in his first season in Northwest Arkansas, is no stranger to success either. This is his third league title. He managed High-A Wilmington to the Carolina League Championship in 2019 and Class A Lexington to the South Atlantic League title in 2018.
Naturals General Manager Justin Cole said Thorman definitely deserves credit for his ability to guide a group that changed significantly from the beginning of the season to the end.
"In July we lost Bobby and Nick and then M.J., I knew we had a resilient group but it's hard to think if you lose those three guys that you're gonna be able to sustain it, let alone get in it and win it," Cole said. "That just goes to show the job Scott did and the guys that came up."
Even though there were challenges, Cole couldn't have been more pleased with how the 2021 season went -- especially after having last season wiped out because of the pandemic.
"I thought our staff did a really good job of just continuing to work through the various challenges and things the second half of the season," Cole said. "I look back on it with a lot of pride and a lot of happiness. I was glad so many fans were able to come back out and see us. It was just a special group from start to end on the field."