Frederick Manager Tom Lawless said he firmly believes that losing builds character. In a season of all-too-brief ups and lengthy stretches of downs, character is one area in which the Keys undoubtedly have led the Class A Carolina League.

Despite his team's 50-85 record through Thursday's games, Lawless feels this season -- which wraps up Monday in Wilmington -- has been anything but a waste.

"It takes a lot of mental toughness," Lawless said, "and as bad as we struggled early in the year, I think some kids have battled through all that, have done a good job and are ready probably to go to the next level."

Chief among them is third baseman Tripper Johnson, who earlier this week was named to the Carolina League year-end all-star team. Through Thursday, he was hitting .267 and was third in the league in home runs (21), fifth in RBI (74) and seventh in slugging percentage (.458).

Johnson's performance, along with those of outfielders B.J. Littleton (.295, 21 steals) and Woody Cliffords (.293, 20 doubles), helped erase the memories of a dismal spring.

After starting the season 8-36, the Keys revamped their roster, added some solid pitching and played nearly .500 ball for the next three months, winning five out of six during a stretch in early July and seven of nine to pull back into the Northern Division second-half race in mid-August.

"In the second half, our pitching staff threw really well," Johnson said. "We had a pretty good half, but we just couldn't hang in there with Wilmington. Overall, we feel pretty good."

Improved pitching from starters Hayden Penn and Chris Ray, and relievers Ryan Keefer and Tony Neal, played a major role in the team's turnaround.

"In the first half, we played a lot of really good games for about seven innings, then we'd just fall to pieces," said Neal (15 saves). "But we just kind of put it together. We got some new guys in here and started playing better all-around team baseball."

Keefer, a fifth-year pro, had a team-best 2.94 ERA through 61 appearances out of the bullpen.

Despite their 2004 record, the Keys continue to fill Harry Grove Stadium (capacity 5,400). Frederick has drawn an average of nearly 4,200 fans, second in the eight-team Carolina League.