04/05/07 — K-Tribe opens season today

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K-Tribe opens season today

Published in Sports on April 5, 2007 1:48 PM

KINSTON -- The 2006 Mills Cup champions begin their title defense tonight as the Kinston Indians open the regular season at Winston-Salem.

The Indians, who are beginning their 21st season as Cleveland's Class A affiliate, will play three games against the Warthogs before returning home to historic Grainger Stadium on Monday for a four-game series with the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

Former K-Tribe infielder and coach Mike Sarbaugh is back as Kinston's manager after leading the Indians to an overall 90-54 record and a Carolina League title in his first season as the club's skipper.

"It's always a great time of the year," Sarbaugh said at Wednesday afternoon's media day. "A new season always brings a lot of high hopes and expectations. I can't wait to get started."

Kinston begins the season with 12 players back from last year's championship team, including first baseman Stephen Head, shortstop Chris De La Cruz and outfielders Nathan Panther, Jose Constanza and John Drennen, who all started in the 2006 Carolina League playoffs.

Brian Finegan was the K-Tribe's opening day shortstop last season, but a broken foot sidelined him for the rest of the year.

The bullpen is experienced as T.J. Burton, Mike Finocchi, Chris Niesel, Scott Roehl and last year's Mills Cup Series MVP Randy Newsom all return for the K-Tribe. Kevin Dixon is the only returning starting pitcher.

The group of Carolina League veterans are joined by highly rated newcomers Wes Hodges, David Huff and Max Ramirez.

Hodges makes his professional debut at third base after being selected in the second round of last year's draft. The former Georgia Tech star is the ninth-rated prospect in the Cleveland organization according to Baseball America.

"I'm looking forward to a fresh start," said Hodges, who was injured most of last year. "Hopefully, I'll stay healthy this year and play a full season."

Baseball America also ranked left-handed starting pitcher David Huff as the 10th best prospect in the Indians system. Huff was the 39th overall pick in last year's draft and played his college ball at UCLA.

Catcher Max Ramirez came to the Cleveland organization in a trade with the Atlanta Braves last season in exchange for big league closer Bob Wickman. Ramirez hit .292 with 13 home runs in 117 games last season.

The Kinston Indians can break the Carolina League record for consecutive playoff appearances this year if they can make it back to the postseason for a seventh straight season. And if the K-Tribe can win their fourth consecutive Southern Division title or their third Mills Cup championship in four years, they would tie both marks set by the Blue Rocks back in the 90s.