For a franchise that usually hosts winning minor league teams, 2019 has been the best yet.
The Ogden Raptors fell behind 4-0 but woke up the bats and claimed a 6-5 victory over the Orem Owlz to end the first half of the season Thursday in Orem.
The Raptors end the half at 31-7, tied for the best half in Pioneer League history (Orem went 31-7 in the second half of 2009).
Jeremiah Jackson extended his league-leading home run mark with his 14th in the third inning, giving Orem a 3-0 lead.
Ogden had one baserunner through the first four innings then awoke to get back in the game. In the fifth, Jon Littell and Andrew Shaps traded RBI doubles before Marco Hernandez singled in Shaps to cut it to 4-3.
Hernandez came through again in the sixth inning by singling in Littell to tie it 4-4. A wild pitch scored Shaps to give Ogden the lead, then Brandon Wulff doubled in Hernandez for a 6-4 lead.
Ogden relievers Mitchell Tyranski (a win in his Ogden debut) and Nelfri Contreras combined to retire 12 straight Orem batters from the fifth to the eighth inning, delivering the Raptors close to the record win mark.
Reza Aleaziz took the mound in the ninth for Ogden, giving up two singles to make it 6-5. With two outs, Jeans Flores doubled on the first pitch he saw to put Orem’s tying and winning runs in scoring position.
First-round draft pick Will Wilson stepped into the box, hitless on the day, and Aleaziz induced a groundout to McWilliams at second base to end the game.
Since beginning play in 1994, the Raptors are 1,004-907 (.525). Given how rosters ebb and flow, and drafts are hit or miss, margins aren’t usually huge and many teams are up and down from year to year. Consider the Orem Owlz, which were 49-26 in 2017 but 22-54 last year and 13-25 this year.
So consistently winning like this is impressive. Only one Ogden squad in 26 seasons has been uncompetitive, the 1999 team that finished 26-50.
Fast-forward to the present. Before 2017, Ogden’s season high for wins was a solid 44-32 and the team had yet to claim a league championship.
The 2017 team went 47-29 and won the Pioneer League title. The 2018 season followed with a 46-30 mark, second-best in franchise history. Now, the 2019 squad is on pace to shatter those marks and perhaps even challenge the 1989 Great Falls Dodgers (53-14) as one of the best teams in league history.
Ogden has the best run-scoring offense and defense, creating a run differential of plus-123 through 38 games. For comparison, only two Major League teams had a better run differential entering Thursday through more than 100 games.
Players like 18-year-old Andy Pages, a developing five-tool prospect, a reborn Justin Yurchak, McWilliams and company are leading this year’s charge. Surely a few will turn out to be the next Cody Bellingers, Matt Beatys or Joc Pedersons to find their way to consistent MLB playing time.
Yurchak has been called up to single-A after last year’s first baseman Dillon Paulson was moved up a level ahead of him.
Those kinds of call-ups present good teams a yearly challenge in Minor League Baseball, but there’s some chance the current Raptors squad sticks together at least somewhat more than recent revolving-door rosters in Ogden. That’s because those players from the last two years of record-high winning in Ogden are playing well in single-A Great Lakes (60-38, first-half champs), high-A Rancho Cucamonga (61-41, first-half champs) and double-A Tulsa (53-48).
There’s less room to call up top performers because there’s a glut of top performers at all levels in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
It seems fans have noticed that trend as well. Through exactly half of the home schedule (19 games), fans have gone to Lindquist Field at an average of 3,852 per game. That’s on pace to match or slightly exceed the team’s best mark of 3,844 per game in 2009, the top draw in the league since the days Salt Lake City fielded the Trappers until 1992.
Even with the Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo in its crescendo, the Raptors welcomed crowds of 5,456 and 5,329 on consecutive nights Tuesday and Wednesday. The second half usually brings smaller crowds as families start to turn their focus on the upcoming school year, but a coming Friday-Saturday homestand with a record-setting team could score some large crowds to begin the final half.
Sure, rookie-league baseball is relatively low stakes. But, given the scores of recent Dodgers prospects making waves all the way up to the Major League level and how, among 14 cities that have hosted Pioneer League teams since 1994, none have had better fan support than Ogden, the conclusion of the 2019 season will certainly be one to watch.