Detroit Tigers: 2015 West Michigan Whitecaps Retrospective

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The following is the story of the 2015 West Michigan Whitecaps, who used the talents of future Detroit Tigers such as Spencer Turnbull, Christin Stewart, and Joe Jimenez to secure their sixth Midwest League title in just 22 seasons of existence.

Below, you can find the retrospective used by the West Michigan Whitecaps in their publications to enter into their upcoming season, and enjoy the names and memories that helped West Michigan crown a champion:

“For most of 2015, it didn’t look as if the West Michigan Whitecaps would end up as champions. In fact, the team played with remarkable consistency throughout the season, never amassing a winning or losing streak longer than four games. The ‘Caps were faced with many challenges but overcame adversity at every turn.

The season began as the roster assembled featuring a group of high draft picks, primarily position players led by 2014 first-round pick Derek Hill, who at 19 years old was the youngest player on the opening day roster. As the Whitecaps and their fans were set for the April 9 home opener against the Dayton Dragons, mother nature had other ideas. For the first time in the Whitecaps 22-year history, rain postponed the home opener. A day later, the rain stopped, and the Whitecaps rallied from a 4-2, eighth-inning deficit with a 5–4 victory.

Despite the opening night win, the team got off to a slow start, posting an April record of 10-13. In May, the ‘Caps made the 10-hour trip to visit the red-hot Bowling Green Hot Rods, who won two of the first three games before a dramatic final contest. Losing three of four to the leagues’ top team surely would’ve been a blow to the Whitecaps’ confidence. Instead, a back-and-forth battle spanned 14 innings resulting in the longest game of the season, lasting 4 hours and 15 minutes with the Whitecaps emerging victorious, 6–3. The month of May saw improved results, as the team went 16-14.

After the long bus ride back to Comstock Park, the ‘Caps faced the Dragons again. With the teams tied at two in the 10th, outfielder Ross Kivett stole second base to put himself in scoring position with two outs and team RBI-leader Mike Gerber at the plate. After a hard-fought at-bat by the left-handed hitting outfielder, Kivett attempted to steal third base. Dragons pitcher Joe Mantoni’s delivered a wild pitch. Kivett tapped third-base, and never slowed down to narrowly beat a throw to home plate and give West Michigan a thrilling 3–2 victory.

As the calendar turned to June, a select few of the Whitecaps early-season performances began to get noticed. Gerber, along with third baseman Zach Shepherd were voted starters to the Midwest League Eastern Division All-Star Team. Joining them were pitchers Spencer Turnbull along with Joe Jimenez; who was also selected to represent the Detroit Tigers at Major League Baseball’s Futures Game prior to the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Despite the impressive individual performances, the team finished the first half of the season with a sixth-place record of 33-36.

In the second half, the Whitecaps were sent a trio of draft reinforcements in catcher Kade Scivicque, shortstop A.J. Simcox, and outfielder Christin Stewart, who was one of two Tigers first-round picks in the 2015 draft. The group propelled the team to a 16-10 second-half record heading into a weekend series at Fort Wayne to protect first place in the Eastern division. The ‘Caps lost that lead with three straight heartbreaking losses; each of which concluded in walk-off fashion. Fort Wayne took the division lead, and never gave it back.

The Whitecaps returned home with their season at a crossroads. In their first game back from Fort Wayne, the ‘Caps opened the month of August badly needing a victory against the Clinton Lumberkings. With the Whitecaps trailing 4–3 in the eighth and a runner on base, it was looking more likely that the ‘Caps four-game losing streak would continue. That’s when Will Kengor hit his first professional home run to give the Whitecaps the lead, and ultimately the victory. It’s this play that turned the fortune of the Whitecaps season that would eventually find them as Midwest League Champions.

Another highlight to August was Gerber’s stellar performance. The Tigers 2014 15th-round pick became the first Whitecap to record double-digit doubles (31), triples (10), home runs (13) in stolen bases (16) since Mike Hollimon in 2006. It’s this performance that eventually landed him as West Michigan’s lone member on the Midwest League’s Postseason All-Star Team.

West Michigan began September by securing its second straight playoff appearance with a dramatic 1–0 victory over Fort Wayne on September 2. Heading into the postseason, the Whitecaps faced the same TinCaps team that celebrated three straight walk-off victories over them nearly two months prior. At home in Game 1 of the best-of-three, a two-run double from Kivett broke open the scoring early, and second baseman David Gonzalez turned a diving catch into an inning-ending double play for the ages to send the team to a 5-2 home victory. One night later, the team went to Fort Wayne and pulled out a 2-1 win, earning a spot in the Midwest League Eastern Division Championship to face the in-state rival Lansing Lugnuts in a best-of-three set.

The series against Lansing would begin much differently than the series against Fort Wayne. The Lugnuts opened the series with a 5–4 victory in Game 1 in West Michigan. The victory put them one win away from advancing to the Midwest League Championship, with the final two games of the series in the State Capital.

In Game 2, the story was infielder Joey Pankake. The native of Easley, South Carolina saved one of his best performances for Lansing with four hits, including a two-run home run to help West Michigan force a decisive game three with an 8–3 victory. In Game 3, a back-and-forth contest saw the ‘Caps pull ahead with five-run seventh inning, sending the Whitecaps to a 14-5 win, and a best-of-five Midwest League Championship Series against the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

In Game 1, West Michigan found out how talented the Cedar Rapids pitching staff truly was in a 5–0 defeat. The Whitecaps were unable to score a run in almost 16 innings of play to begin the championship series. Thankfully, the drought ended at the most critical time, when Pankake delivered a go-ahead, two-run single to give the ‘Caps a 2-1 lead in Game 2. The play wouldn’t be finished without a bit of controversy as Stewart’s second run was awarded by home plate umpire Richard Genera after determining that Kernels catcher Brian Navarreto illegally blocked home plate. The call loomed large in the series as the Whitecaps picked up a 4–1 victory, sending the series back to Cedar Rapids with the series tied at one.

Quality pitching continued to dominate in Cedar Rapids, seeing the game hold a 1–1 tie until the ‘Caps took a 2–1 lead in the ninth inning. However, Cedar Rapids pulled off an inspired rally in the bottom of the inning to pick up a dramatic 3-2 win, bringing West Michigan one loss from elimination. In Game 4, pitcher Jeff Thompson allowed just one run in five innings, and reliever Trey Teakell allowed only one base hit in three scoreless frames, helping the Whitecaps to a 2–1 victory. The win forced a deciding Game 5 to determine if West Michigan would capture its sixth Midwest League title.

Trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning of Game 5, The ‘Caps struck for three runs to take the lead. The Whitecaps bullpen worked itself out of trouble with a pair of scoreless innings, sending the game to the ninth with the lead in-hand. Jimenez, who had been used in three straight games, was called on by manager Andrew Graham to finish one more. The fire-balling righty never allowed a ball to be hit in play, striking out the side and giving West Michigan their sixth Midwest League Championship in its 22-year history.

Upon returning home in the wee hours of the morning, the Whitecaps were brought back into town with a police escort, where a heroes welcome awaited them at Fifth Third Ballpark. The team was fitted for their championship rings, cleaned out their lockers, and said their goodbyes. Thus ends the story of an improbable run, and a team that won’t be forgotten: The 2015 Midwest League Champion West Michigan Whitecaps!”

Coming soon, the Whitecaps will release a video rebroadcast of their 2015 Championship game, complete with interviews from the players, coaches, and staffers. The event will premiere on Facebook and come complete with a simulcast on the Whitecaps flagship radio station, 106.1-FM in Grand Rapids.

What are your favorite memories from the 2015 Whitecaps season? Which Tigers MiLB team will win a Minor League Championship next? Leave a comment below and find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!