Wooden's World of Baseball

Saturday, September 13, 2008

What A Difference A Year Makes

A year ago this weekend, I was despondent over seeing my beloved North Shore Spirit go down with a whimper, losing their ninth straight championship finals game at Fraser Field. As you might have guessed from my last post, that pain still lingered just a tiny bit, so my enthusiasm was definitely tempered, remembering the 2004 North Shore Spirit that had lost seven straight on the road and appeared to be done.

The 2008 Potomac Nationals reminded me of that year's regular-season finish, getting swept at home by the last-place team and the team playing dull, uninspired ball. They were finishing up against their first-round opponent and it seemed like that would be too much familiarity for them to overcome whatever advantage they might have.

Instead, they managed to turn it up and turn it on, sweeping the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Granted, these were all by the slimmest of margins — 2-1, 3-2, and 1-0 — but a win is a win is a win. But then they were going to face the Carolina League's winningest team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who had also swept both halves, but much more impressively: 45 wins in the first, 44 wins in the second. The team had largely stayed intact and had even been able to drop down a player from AA for the run.

On paper, it looked like the Potomac Nationals had a shot. They had beaten them 11 times; the only team in the league to have a winning record, but two of those wins came in April with rehabbing "W-Nats" on the mound. They had the much superior defense, and the pitching was nearly as good. But at the plate, the two teams were 1-2 in nearly every major category, and Potomac was not the "1" in any of them.

This, I thought, would be their undoing. They would win the close ones, but not the slugfests. My fear was that Myrtle Beach would go up 4-5 runs on them and they just wouldn't be able to come back from that far down. This was a team that had either won going away or close, but hadn't managed many dramatic comebacks from more than a run or two.

Game One saw a good, old narc-at-a-biker-rally beating: 15-0 in favor of Potomac, on the road. As anyone who's every followed minor-league ball knows, it's great to get home-field advantage in a 2-3 format, but it's critical to win one of those road games to really make it worthwhile.

Game Two was pretty much what I expected. The PNats fell behind 6-0 early, made some fielding errors and had a fork in their backs. I didn't put much credence into their rallying to within two at 6-4, knowing that a pitcher changes his approach when he has a margin for error.

Game Three was what I had hoped for. The PNats took leads of 2-0 and 4-2, but Ross Detwiler was on the mound and it was a typical Detwiler start: flashes of brilliance blackened by bad luck.
Though dominant at times (9K in 4⅔ IP) the Pelicans somehow managed to get the big hit with two outs every time, making Detwiler pay for the few mistakes he made. Ross left with game tied at 4.

But lost in the losing, (except for those of us who keep score ;-) was just how all-or-nothing the Pelicans were. By the 8th, they were up 7-4 but had struck out 16 times. If it were just Detwiler, it'd be one thing, but it didn't matter: Dan Leatherman (a porn star name if there ever was one, no?) got two in one inning, Clint Everts got five in 2⅓ and Josh Wilkie got the last two, for a total of 18 through nine innings.

A year ago I wrote this about the hurt of losing so close so many times:

You get older, you get a bit more thick-skinned... you hope against experience and logic that maybe this time it will be different, because, well, every now and then it is...

Potomac managed to get two runners on via the walk, but the Pelicans were focused on getting outs, allowing Boomer Whiting, the first baserunner, to take second uncontested with one out. But it also removed the chance for a double play, and while the next hitter did walk, a grounder could have ended it. After a pitcher change, the next batter struck out and it seemed like this little rally would be too little, too late. Coming to the plate was the team's 23-year-old catcher, who had hit just 4 home runs in the regular season, all to LF and just barely clearing the fence.

The guy next to me, a retired engineer who likes to pick my brain who comes to the games about 10 times a year, made the kind of prediction that during the regular season you'd laugh at.

"Alright, this guy's going to hit one out and send it to extra innings."

But in the postseason, you try to cast aside doubt. But I didn't laugh and merely replied "I sure hope so."

Seconds later, Jhonatan Solano (not a typo) swung from his heels at the very first pitch and hit it... wait for it... just over the LF wall. Game tied, 7-7.

The Pelicans looked shellshocked. Their 10th inning saw three groundouts to short, with the last runner making his best impersonation of Manny Ramirez. In the bottom of the 10th, the walks continued, but the Pelicans did manage to erase the first one on a 3-6 putout, and after a single and a walk loaded the bases, got the second out on a 6-2 play at the plate. But the third walk of the inning, on a 3-2 count no less, plated the gamewinner.

Potomac wins 8-7.

Game Four was what every fan hopes for. Potomac scored each of the first four innings, building a 7-1 lead. Erik Arnesen, a July callup from Hagerstown, dominated the Pelicans for the first six innings. He began the 7th by surrendering a second solo shot to Ernesto Mejia, but then retired the next two batters. A walk and a ground-rule double chased Arnesen from the game, but Randy Knorr called on lefty Jack Spradlin to retire the one left-handed bat on the Myrtle Beach roster.

Potomac leads 8-2 after 7 full innings.

The Pelicans mounted another rally in the 8th, eventually getting runners on 1st and third with two out, but Myrtle Beach's star catcher Tyler Flowers (with a name like that, it's a good thing he's 6'5" and weighs 245) struck out to end the threat.

After a 1-2-3 bottom of the 8th, the drama was over. Two strikeout and a groundout to short and it was all over. The Potomac Nationals were the 2008 Carolina League champions.

For six seasons, I had held season tickets. In the first two, my team made the Finals, only to get swept the first time, then blow a 2-0 lead with three straight gut-wrenching losses at home (to this day, I haven't seen a playoff where the road team won every game). In season three, the team missed the playoffs by a half game. Then I moved to Virginia and saw first-hand just how decimated the Nationals organization was for the 2006 season and the first half of the 2007.

They made a run in the 2nd half of 2007, and it proved to be a preview for 2008, a team that led wire-to-wire despite more than 60 players coming through. I'd like to think 2009 will be the same, but I'm fully aware that it may just as easily be like 2006 or 2007. But for now, I'm going to relish the memories of finally, finally, finally seeing "my" team win it all.


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