2020 Canaries: COVID-shortened season highlighted by return to playoffs

Watching the Milwaukee Milkmen dogpile on their pitchers mound and later hoist the American Association championship trophy on their home turf surely wasn’t the finish the Canaries were hoping for, but let’s be real.

After nine consecutive losing seasons – eight of which ended with the Birds in last place – posting a winning record, let alone reaching the league’s championship series, qualifies as a successful season for Sioux Falls’ minor league baseball club.

The Birds went 31-27 during the regular season (the final two games were canceled due to rain and not made up) before falling to the Milkmen 4-1 in the best-of-seven championship series to the regular season pennant winners. The series featured the league’s best offense and second-worst pitching staff (Sioux Falls) going against the league’s best pitching staff and worst offense (Milwaukee), and as is often the case, that matchup favored the pitching.

More:Milwaukee Milkmen win American Association title over Canaries

And in this case, the Milkmen’s pitching was really good. All four pitchers who started games in the finals for Milwaukee were former major leaguers, including former N.L. all-star Henderson Alvarez and Game 5 winner David Holmberg, who took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. Their bullpen was equally as dominant, and it was too much for the Birds lineup.

“We wanted to play a little better than we did – we kind of laid an egg,” said Birds skipper Mike Meyer. “We didn’t hit to the level I thought we could have. It wasn’t our best series by any means, and that leaves kind of a bad taste, but all in all we’re pretty proud. I think what we were able to accomplish this year in a six-team league that was jam-packed with without a doubt the most talent there’s ever been in the American Association, to be one of the two teams playing for a championship at the end is something to be proud of.”

Canaries infielder Damek Tomscha throws the ball to first base during the third game of the American Association Finals against the Milwaukee Milkmen on Tuesday, September 15, at the Birdcage in Sioux Falls.

The Milkmen were able to assemble that kind of talent in part because the American Association suspended its roster rules for the COVID-19 shortened season, and in part because with all of affiliated minor league baseball shut down, there was more talent available for an independent league than ever before, and no need to worry about them getting poached by a major league organization.

That went for the Canaries, too, and the roster Meyer put together was indeed a strong one.

They had former big leaguers in utility man Ryan Brett, pitchers Madison Younginer, Tanner Anderson and Tyler Danish, and put together a loaded lineup in minor league veterans like Damek Tomscha, Sioux Falls native Logan Landon, Jabari Henry, Alay Lago, Clint Coulter and Andrew Ely. Landon, Tomscha and Ely were all named all-stars, with Landon batting .333 with 10 homers and playing stellar defense in center field for a memorable homecoming.

More:Finally: Canaries clinch first playoff berth, winning season since 2010

What gets less attention are the key acquisitions Meyer made in the offseason that ended up getting canceled due to the pandemic. Power-hitting outfielder Gabriel Quintana, speedy infielder Alvaro Rondon and starting pitchers Cesilio Pimentel and Eudis Idrogo all figured to be major contributors but couldn’t get to Sioux Falls because of visa issues. Meyer deserves credit for plugging those holes with under-the-radar additions like Jake Zokan, Nicco Blank and Roy Morales, but he admits it’s tempting to wonder what might have been.

Canaries outfielders Clint Coulter and Logan Landon jog back to the dugout between innings on Thursday, September 17, during game five of the playoff series at the Birdcage in Sioux Falls.

The question now is, can the Canaries compete for a championship again next year when, presumably, the league is back to full strength at 12 teams and affiliated minor league baseball is back in business as well. Meyer believes this year’s squad would have done so, especially at full strength, and hopes a foundation has finally been laid for future success.

“It took me longer than I would’ve liked but we’ve been taking baby steps every year,” Meyer said of finally delivering a winning season. “It was a big weight off of my shoulders and the fact that we did it in this pandemic season – I’m telling you, it was a gauntlet. There were no easy games.

“In a 100-game season with 12 teams you get teams that aren’t very good or teams that are scuffling, but this year it was six elite teams,” he added. “Everyone was loaded. We had to play (2019 league champion) St. Paul 24 times. To come out on top, it almost means a little more to do it in such a gauntlet of a season. I’m really thankful we had the opportunity and got through the season healthy.”

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