Owners of the Minors' best winning percentage as well as the Florida State League's top team batting average, ERA and fielding percentage, the Manatees locked up the North Division first-half crown Saturday with a 4-0 blanking of the Palm Beach Cardinals.
"It feels pretty good," second-year skipper Mike Guerrero said. "We've been blessed to have a good group with a lot of ability and we've been able to execute. In 16 years of managing, this is the best chemistry I've seen in any ballclub."
Damon Krestalude tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his first start of the season and former second-round pick Brent Brewer homered, doubled, drove in two runs and scored twice as the Manatees returned to the postseason. In 2007, they won the first-half East Division title before losing to Clearwater in the Championship Series.
Needing a win over Palm Beach or a loss by Daytona to wrap up the division, the Manatees knew their fate was in their own hands after the Cubs' game with Fort Myers was rained out.
Krestalude, who allowed a run on one hit over two innings against Sarasota in his season debut on June 6, struck out three and walked four before turning the game over to the Brevard County bullpen.
"It was an emergency start and he did a good job," Guerrero said of Milwaukee's 18th-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. "Right now, he's probably going to be back in the bullpen."
Palm Beach threatened to spoil the clincher in the seventh, loading the bases with one out, before Zach Braddock struck out Jose Garcia and Thomas Pham to end the inning.
"That's one arm that can come out and strike out the side," Guerrero said of Braddock. "He's got Major League stuff and it's just a matter of time for him to get there."
Brandon Rapoza (1-0), Braddock and Roque Mercedes combined to allow three hits over the final 4 1/3 frames as the Manatees completed their Minor League-leading 11th shutout.
Brewer sparked a two-run third with an RBI double, then led off the fifth with his first homer of the year as the Manatees opened a 4-0 lead and never looked back.
Though his team already has locked up a playoff berth, Guerrero doesn't expect any drop-off in effort for the remainder of the season.
"I don't think this group is that type of group," he said. "This group is not going to go through the motions in the second half.
"Their main goal is not just to win one half. The main goal is to prepare to get to the next level and play the game the right away. That's why we accomplished this goal."
John Torenli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.