The Lancaster Jethawks defeated their southern division rival, the Inland
Empire 66ers, to win the California League Southern Division Championship on
Tuesday night, September 14. The JetHawks took the best of five series three
games to one, closing out the 66ers on the road by winning 5-4.
JetHawk DH, "Big Game" Jon Zeringue took care of business by going 4 for 4, with 3 RBI and two runs scored, giving Zeringue the post season league lead in RBI with nine. Zeringue's performance made sure there would be no deciding game five at home. Instead, the Jethawks will travel north to begin game one of the best of five California League Championship Series on Thursday, September 16 at Modesto. It will be the first time the JetHawk franchise has competed for the league championship.
Game one of the 2-2-1 format began Saturday, September 11 at the Hangar in Lancaster, California. The two teams share a post season history ever since the 66ers knocked Lancaster out of the 2000 tournament by taking three straight games after dropping the first two against the JetHawks.
Players took pre-game infield and batting practice with ominous thunderheads developing a few miles east, out over the Mojave Desert. The threatening yet spectacular display of nature loomed menacingly, awaiting perhaps, like the 66ers, to rain down upon the Hangar and the 1,586 fans that anxiously awaited playoff baseball.
The rain never fell but the JetHawks did, 7-6, in a game as dramatic as the evening sky. JetHawk All Star pitcher Enrique Gonzalez took the mound for the start, going four innings, giving up three runs on six hits along with three walks and three strike outs. It was in the fourth inning Inland Empire did their damage as Gonzalez yielded two runs on four hits and a walk.
The JetHawk offense struggled against 66er starter Thomas Oldham, who struck out seven in five innings. JetHawk batters finished the game with 13 Ks.
Outfielder Doc Brooks connected in the sixth with a lead off home run to put Lancaster on the board with their first run of the series.
After a series of errors by the 66ers on a ball hit by second baseman Dan Uggla with one out in the sixth that spotted Uggla third base, Zeringue recognized a gift when he saw it and came through with a clutch RBI single to bring the Jethawks to within one. The next two batters fanned and Zeringue was left on base with the score 3-2, Inland Empire.
A four run top of the eighth put Inland Empire up 7-3, and appeared to give the 66ers a comfortable lead. But it was the comfortable lead that set the stage for drama in the bottom of the ninth.
The last half of the ninth brought Zeringue to the plate with the bases full and one down with the Jethawks trailing 7- 4. A base hit by Doc Brooks followed by two consecutive walks to Jared Ball and Dan Uggla, brought Lancaster's version of Mighty Casey to the plate. In his first season playing professional ball, at bat in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line in game one of postseason play and a round-tripper meaning a walk off grand slam, Zeringue roped a 2-0 fastball down the left field line that easily cleared the fence but was foul by only a few feet. The disappointment of the home crowd of 1,586 was audible.
Two pitches later, Zeringue burned a double down the line to the left field corner, scoring two. Down by one with two outs to play, Zeringue had set the table and provided his team the opportunity to pull out a come from behind win.
The next two batters struck out swinging, stranding Zeringue on second base and team mate Dan Uggla on third.
The JetHawks used six pitchers in game one.
Game two was won by Lancaster 6-4. AJ Shappi got the win, pitching 3 2/3 inning and giving up three runs. After a three strike out performance in game one, third baseman Jay Garthwaite redeemed himself by leading off the fifth with a single then later being sacrificed in to give Lancaster a 4-3 lead.
Second baseman Dan Uggla gave his team the offensive insurance they needed by leading off the sixth with a solo home run, giving the JetHawks a 6-3 lead.
Justin Wechsler earned his first save of the post season by pitching two scoreless innings and fanning four.
Game three took place in San Bernardino at Arrowhead Credit Union Park. With the series even at one a piece, Lancaster took the series lead two games to one by winning 9-5.
Jay Garthwaite moved to first base, replacing Sean Luellwitz for no other reason than the favorable match up in the mind of manager Wally Backman. The move paid off as Garthwaite went deep in the first inning for a two run shot.
Starter Pete Zamora took care of eight of the first nine Inland Empire batters he faced but failed to get the post season win. Sam Smith, one of six pitchers used, as in game one, got credit for the victory.
Game four saw Lancaster close out the series, winning 5-4, and take the California League Southern Division Championship, three games to one.
In the third inning, Zeringue doubled home two with two outs to give the JetHawks a 2-0 lead. The top of the eighth saw Zeringue lead off with a single, get sacrificed to second then score on a base hit by catcher Phil Avlas to break a 3-3 tie and go up by one.
After Inland Empire failed to tie the ballgame in the bottom of the eighth, Jon Zeringue continued his habit of big game performances by sacrificing in an insurance run in the top of the ninth. It was that run which prevented extra innings as the 66ers scored once in the bottom of the ninth, one run too few, then going on to lose 5-4.
Starter Adam Bass got the no decision as teammate Carlton Wells took the win. Justin Wechsler picked up the save, his second save in the series.
"This is a great group of guys, the best team I have ever been a part of. We just came down here to finish the job," said Wells, who made his franchise record 157th appearance in a JetHawk uniform.
Doc Brooks, Sean Luellwitz and Phil Avlas each had two hit performances. Zeringue finished with four hits, three runs scored and two RBI.
It has been an exciting week for JetHawk manager Wally Backman, his coaching staff, players, the fans and front office. The week began with Backman being named Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year after guiding the Jethawks to the fourth best record in all of minor league baseball and the second best in franchise history.
September in general, has been kind to the JetHawks. Doc Brooks was named California League Player of the Week which was preceded by catcher Phil Avlas and pitcher Enrique Gonzalez being named California League All Stars.
On September 13, right hand closer Justin Wechsler was named the California League Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Month for August. Switched to the bull pen in June, Wechsler has made the most of the opportunity. In August, he picked up nine saves and struck out 22 while walking eight over 14 2/3 innings pitched. Most impressive is that Wechsler earned eight of his nine saves in August on the road.
The JetHawks dealt with and put to rest their nemesis, the dreaded 66ers of the Inland Empire, to win the division championship.
On going north to play for all the California League marbles, Backman is focused on one thing: winning.
"We're going up there to win. We haven't played this long to not play hard up there," said Backman.
The storm clouds that gathered before game one over the high desert 50 miles north of Los Angeles do convey the traditional signs of doom...but apparently only for the other team. In the world of minor league baseball, these desert behemoths are symbolic of the power and drive of a collection of individuals we know as the 2004 Lancaster JetHawks. The 2004 California League Southern Division Champion JetHawks, that is.
The California League Championship series is a best of five with a 2-3 format. The JetHawks will be on the road for the first two games scheduled for Thursday, September 15 and Friday, September 17 in Modesto. Games two and three are scheduled for The Hangar on Saturday and Sunday. Game five, if necessary is scheduled for Monday, September 20 in Lancaster.
Lancaster took the regular season series against Modesto, four games to two.
Jon Zeringue is a winner, plain and simple, pure as the driven snow. He won as a catcher back at E.…