Mariners affiliate wins first-half title
Cal League division crown is Mavericks' first since 1993
It's been a long time coming for High Desert.
The All-Star-laden Mavericks had cruised through the first two months of the season and appeared poised to easily clinch the California League Southern Division first-half title for the first time in 16 years.
High Desert started the week on cruise control, but a pair of losses to Rancho Cucamonga and a pair of wins by Lake Elsinore kept the Mavs' magic number at two.
On Wednesday night, the chips finally fell into place.
The Mavericks wrapped up the elusive crown by holding off the Quakes, 4-3, at Mavericks Stadium.
"There was a little bit of too much anticipation up to that point," second-year manager Jim Horner said. "When we got down to [magic No. 2], I think the guys just went away a little bit from their plans offensively. They were so excited, they [all] wanted to be the hero. "
For a good part of Wednesday's game, it looked like nerves might get the better of the Mavs again. But when word of the Storm's loss to Bakersfield reached the home dugout in the top of the sixth, Horner saw something change in his young squad.
"I said, 'If you guys want to celebrate tonight, well, here you go,'" he recalled.
Judging from the final three innings, that's all the Mavericks wanted to do. Alex Liddi opened the bottom of the sixth with his 16th homer, forging a 1-1 tie. The blast rejuvenated High Desert, which scored three times in the seventh, then held off a late rally by the Quakes to put win No. 42 in the books.
And the division-clinching 42nd victory wasn't just the Mavs biggest "W," it was precisely the goal the team had set earlier this season.
"These guys, I can't say enough about them," Horner said. "They play the game hard, and I know they're young and they still have a lot to learn, but they play the game right."
The Mavs (42-28) have been paced offensively by a quartet of All-Star. First baseman Joe Dunigan, third baseman Liddi, shortstop Juan Diaz and designated hitter Travis Scott comprise an explosive lineup.
Liddi leads the league with 58 RBIs, two more than Dunigan, who's tied with Liddi for second with 16 homers. Diaz is hitting .327 with 22 RBIs, while Scott is batting .314 with 29 RBIs. Right fielder James McOwen has been a consistent force at the plate, batting .317 with a club-record 28-game hitting streak that's seven games from tying the league mark.
Although having a talented squad doesn't hurt, Horner has been equally impressed with his team's cohesiveness.
"These guys are like night and day compared to other teams I've had," said Horner, who has been managing in the Minors for four seasons and guided High Desert to a 58-82 record last year. "Sometimes in Minor League baseball, you get guys who don't like each other, but these guys not only like each other, they help each other out."
With a first-half division title in the bag, the Mavericks -- who Horner expects will lose several players to promotions -- will set a new goal for the second half.
On Wednesday night, however, as Mavericks broadcaster Alex Freedman put it, it was "Time to celebrate in the High Desert."
Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.