MANCHESTER, N.H. — They come back to Hadlock Field on Monday with a chance to be the best, in many ways.
The Portland Sea Dogs come home with an 84-50 record, a first-place spot in their division and hopes for the second Eastern League championship in franchise history.
Speaking of history, this Portland team could be the best to play at Hadlock since the Sea Dogs began in 1994.
The 1995 Sea Dogs had the franchise’s best record, at 86-56. That year, the expansion Florida Marlins flooded Portland with prospects like Edgar Renteria, Ralph Milliard, Billy McMillon (now the Sea Dogs manager), Antonio Alfonseca and Jay Powell.
And the Marlins usually kept their minor leaguers on one team, unlike the Boston Red Sox who continually promote players to higher levels.
The Red Sox replaced Florida as the Sea Dogs’ parent club in 2003. This season, they have taken most of the touted prospects who began 2014 in Portland, promoting 10 players to Triple-A Pawtucket.
But the players who remain keep winning.
“Just because you’re not a prospect doesn’t mean you can’t play the game,” said Sea Dogs shortstop Mike Miller, who was promoted to Portland Aug. 2 from Class A Salem.
Miller, 24, a ninth-round draft pick in 2012, is one of those “non-prospects,” his $5,000 signing bonus, considerably less than the seven-figures handed to the bonus babies.
“This team might not have a lot of blue-chip prospects, but they know how to play,” said Miller, who had three hits and scored two runs in Sunday’s 5-0 win over New Hampshire. Miller is batting .328 since his promotion.
With most of the prospects gone from Portland, the rest of the team gets an opportunity to shine.
“The good thing about the roster is that a lot of people will get a chance to play,” said McMillon. “Some of the people we’ve promoted, it’s hard to replace those guys, except with a team effort.
“The guys are getting settled in and hopefully they’ll carry us through.”
What is really carrying the Sea Dogs is pitching. Portland is on a nine-game winning streak, during which it has recorded three shutouts and won three one-run games.
“We have a ton of confidence, especially with the way our pitchers are throwing,” said outfielder Kevin Heller, who stroked a three-run double in the eighth inning Sunday.
“We know the bats will eventually come around. It feels like our pitchers have thrown up zeroes every game and, if we score, we’re going to win.”
Portland’s win streak comes after it lost four straight games and 6 of 7.
“We’re getting right back at it, at the right time,” said first baseman David Chester, one of the Sea Dogs who played on McMillon’s championship team in Salem last year.
When McMillon was an outfielder for the 1995 Sea Dogs, Portland won its division in the Eastern League, but lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Interestingly, the 2006 league champion Sea Dogs were only 76-67 and qualified for the playoffs by finishing second in the division.
The current Sea Dogs lead Binghamton (81-52) by 2 1/2 in the East Division. The Mets have played one less game than Portland, but are scheduled for a doubleheader Tuesday against New Britain.
The Sea Dogs finish with four games apiece against the two last-place teams in the league — Reading (59-75) and Harrisburg (49-84).
Back in Portland this week, this team could be celebrating a franchise-best record and a first-place finish, with momentum for the playoffs in September.