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Title fight

Drillers ready to defend 2018 Texas League Championship

The Drillers celebrate after winning the 2018 Texas League Championship

Tim Campbell/Tulsa Drillers

With the mission finally accomplished, the Tulsa Drillers are swinging for an encore in 2019.

After coming agonizingly close to winning a Texas League championship in 2017, leading the final series 2-0 before letting it slip away with three straight home losses, the Drillers spent the 2018 season fired up to finish the job.

They did just that Sept. 14 by defeating the San Antonio Missions in three straight games to claim the franchise’s first league title since 1998.

Tulsa will open the season with its championship defense on April 4 against the Arkansas Travelers at home on ONEOK Field.

The Drillers will likely have a lot of familiar, playoff-tested players back this season, their fifth as the Class-AA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Manager Scott Hennessey, who initially sparked the club’s run to the post-season when he took over in July 2018, returns for his second full season at the helm.

“The players are looking forward to start the year off, defending their Texas League Championship, and hopefully we can do it again,” said Hennessey, who has an overall record of 112-85 (.569) as Drillers manager. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The Dodgers, they know how we go about it. They know our work ethic; they know how prepared we are; they know how we prepare the players—and I couldn’t be happier to be in Tulsa. It’s just a good fit.”

Hennessey said his primary job is to help players improve to the point where they can contribute to the parent Dodgers and believes that the playoff success just further contributes to that process.

“I think it’s really valuable,” Hennessey said. “We’re in this business to develop, but in my opinion, you just can’t flip a light switch on once you get to the big leagues and say, ‘Okay, you had your fun, now you’re expected to win.’ All these guys have won championships, at either Rancho or this level now, and for the Dodgers, we’re teaching these guys, not only how to win, but how to prepare to win.

“From the mental side, you don’t change what you do,” he said. “We believe in what we do with our players in the Dodgers organization, and hopefully, we can do it again.”

Hennessey expects to have a number of players back from the championship squad. He expects Tulsa will have a formidable pitching corps, led by top Major League prospects Tony Gonsolin, Mitchell White, and Dustin May.

“Three very high pitching prospects could start in Tulsa, and if they do, you’ve basically got three number ones, and they will be the strength of our ballclub,” Hennessey said. “Guys with power stuff, all of them have been up to 96-98 [miles per hour] in spring training, in big league games, and it will be really nice to have those guys.”

White spent the entire 2018 season in Tulsa, while Gonsolin and May split the year between Rancho Cucamonga and Tulsa. May was actually the winning pitcher in the Game 3 Championship clincher.

Hennessey also speculated about a number of key position players that he expects to be in Tulsa, citing Keibert Ruiz, Gavin Lux, D.J. Peters, Omar Estevez, Cristian Santana, and former University of Oklahoma backup quarterback Cody Thomas, as likely Drillers to begin the season.

Ruiz and Peters each played in Tulsa all season, while Lux suited up for both Rancho Cucamonga and the Drillers last year, hitting a home run in the Texas League final game. The others enjoyed strong seasons in Rancho Cucamonga.

All of those players participated in the Dodgers’ main spring training in February and March, mingling with the big league squad’s stars and playing in their exhibition games. That can only have a positive impact on them when they get to Tulsa, especially seeing the pathway to the majors exemplified by Drillers-turned-Dodgers like Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Caleb Ferguson, Dennis Santana, and others.

“I think it’s experience that the players are getting, just seeing how hard [the Major Leaguers] are working and how prepared they are getting for a game,” Hennessey said. “It’s great for those guys to see. We graduated those [former Drillers]—that’s our job. We want you here, but we don’t want you here long … Just get them better, move them on and hopefully, they get to Dodger Stadium and become a productive big leaguer for a long period of time.”

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