In a season full of surprises that has landed his club in the first Triple-A World Series, Bisons president Bob Rich Jr. said one of the biggest stories is the work of manager Jeff Datz.
A first-year manager in Triple-A, Datz has led Buffalo to the best record in the International League (81-62), a playoff championship and a split of two games here. Game Three against the New Orleans Zephyrs is today at Cashman Field (3:30; ESPN, Radio 1520).
"Jeff came in after a tough year in Double-A (a 51-90 season at Akron) and there were a lot of questions," Rich said while watching the Herd's 9-2 victory Tuesday night in Game Two. "He had a lot of younger kids there and he had an image of being a strong disciplinarian.
"Then he gets a veteran club here and there were more questions about how they would respond. He's following a legacy of great managers in Buffalo, so he came in with a real cloud hanging over him. He just proved that he could switch gears from last year."
There was speculation last fall that the Bisons' front office was trying to dissuade the parent Cleveland Indians from promoting Datz. There was little doubt Buffalo favored ex-Bison catcher Joel Skinner, who ended up going 81-62 at Akron this year.
Datz's team struggled to a 30-33 record through mid-June. Counting the postseason, the Herd is 58-32 since.
"Jeff grew and matured, and I think he's had as good a prospect year as any of the other guys we've had in the past," Rich said. "If he hadn't been thought of as a prospect before this season by the organization, he has to be now.
"He came into a place like Buffalo and didn't have much of a grace period. There were some tough times early on but he did a great job handling them."
Datz's first championship in his five-year managerial career got Rich off the hook for some bold remarks made during last September's victory rally celebrating Buffalo's American Association title.
"When I said we were going to serve notice on the International League and to call people in other cities and tell them we're coming in angry, so many times things go south on you the opposite way," Rich said. "This one came true, and this team has been above and beyond my wildest expectations, especially after our slow start.
"You were just hoping for the wild card (when the club was 11 1/2 games out of first place in June.) We were looking at how Louisville, Indianapolis and Pawtucket were doing. One of the things I'll remember about this team regardless of what happens in Las Vegas is how it came back to win a lot of big games."
In particular, Rich recalled the Herd's 6-4 win Aug. 10 at Syracuse that opened the season's key four-game sweep. It came one night after a 17-3 loss to Pawtucket. He also pointed to a 14-4 win Aug. 30 at Pawtucket one day after a 17-2 loss to the Pawsox.
"This championship is one of those things you dream about. That's where the character comes in," Rich said. "You have guys like Jeff Manto who stand up to talk to the kids (before Game Five of the Governors Cup Finals last Friday at Durham), and they come together. Our team was a bunch of warriors last year and incredible battlers this year."
Rich admitted he had serious questions about staging the Triple-A World Series at a neutral site. But he quickly realized during the stretch drive how his players were constantly talking about a potential trip to Las Vegas.
"Then I was talking to major league personnel and I was amazed to find out how many different farm directors were planning on coming here," he said. "It's really a celebration of the season in a wonderful location. If we had come into this wondering if we were going to New Orleans or Calgary (the PCL finalists), it would have been much different than having these guys point to being here.
"I've heard more 'Viva Las Vegas' yells the last few weeks than you can imagine. I'm a real convert. This is great. There's a lot of promotional work that needs to be done for next year in terms of getting more people out here, but this is a tremendous first step."
Willie Martinez, a 20-year-old right-hander who is Cleveland's top pitching prospect, will make his Triple-A debut today for Buffalo. Martinez is 17-9 with a 3.90 ERA in two minor-league seasons with 237 strikeouts in 281 innings.
Martinez was 9-7, 4.38 this year at Akron. His last outing was Sept. 10, when he pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings with 10 strikeouts in a Eastern League semifinal win over Harrisburg. A relief pitcher (likely Huck Flener or Jim Brower) will be deactivated from the roster to make room for Martinez.
"Knowing there will be a tomorrow no matter what he does sure takes a lot of the pressure off Martinez," Datz said after Game Two.
New Orleans will start 32-year-old right-hander Bob Scanlan, who has thrown three straight complete games and is 2-0 with a sparkling 0.50 ERA in 18 playoff innings.
Game Four is Friday night at 11:30 EDT with Buffalo's Travis Driskill meeting New Orleans' Bob Milacki.