The 2004 California League Championship Series has come and gone, and pure sports enthusiasts may relish in the fact that the top two teams in the league squared off in the finals.
There was no wild card team or a second place club who played a series above their heads or was fortunate to face a superior team playing beneath themselves; thus, no denying the fact that fans were watching the best go head to head. It was the stars of tomorrow competing today for their first professional baseball championship ring.
The 90-50 Modesto A's, whose win total was tops in regular season minor league baseball in 2004 faced the 86-54 Lancaster JetHawks, who earned the fourth best minor league win total for the year.
The New York Mets affiliate Capitol City Bombers (88-47), of the Single ‘A' South Atlantic League had a higher winning percentage (.651) than both the A's and JetHawks, but played five fewer games.
Both the A's and JetHawks won the first and second halves of the regular season in their division and both teams are the only two in the ten team California league to post winning records on the road. Modesto‘s regular season road record for 04' was 42-28 while Lancaster won two fewer and finished the year 40-30 on away games.
Modesto has the California League 2004 league manager of the year in Von Hayes. Wally Backman is this year's Sporting News Manager of the Year in all minor league baseball.
The A's led the league in batting, finishing with a .302 team average and have a hitting machine named Brian Stavisky, who happens to be the league MVP.
On paper, this championship best of five series read like one for the ages. In between the lines, it did not disappoint.
Thursday, September 16
John Thurman Field, Modesto
Good Pitching Beats Good Hitting Any Day of the Week
Lancaster All Star pitcher Enrique Gonzalez took the mound against the league's best offense and limited the A's to nine hits and two earned runs over 6 2/3 innings of work while striking out six. Mike Watson closed out the seventh with a strike out and Justin Wechsler threw two hitless innings in relief to pick up his third save of the post season.
Catcher Phil Avlas went solo for his first round tripper of the post season when he hit one out of the park in the top of the seventh to extend the lead to 3-1. Modesto came back in the home half of the seventh, scoring once to close within one run once again.
Riding Wechsler's arm and riding a 3-2 lead that is shaky at best against a prolific Modesto offense, Lancaster added one more run with two outs in the top of the ninth off Danny Richar's RBI double to take a 4-2 lead and the ballgame. Each team finished with nine hits apiece.
The following day, on September 17, Gonzalez was named the Arizona Diamondback Organizational Pitcher of the Year.
JetHawks 4, A's 2
Lancaster leads series 1-0
Friday, September 17
"The Ugliest Game" 21 Runs on 22 Hits and 8 Errors
Game one's box score shows a game dominated by good pitching. Game two's was an offensive free for all, chock full of errors. Modesto lead off batter and DH Eduardo Cornejo, and California League MVP and left fielder Brian Stavisky, each managed a perfect performance at the plate in game two.
Cornejo went 3 for 3, scored three runs with one RBI. Stavisky batted 4 for 4 and added two runs and two RBI in a game where 17 of the 21 runs were scored in the first three innings of play.
Lancaster starter AJ Shappi walked the first two batters he faced and eventually ended the inning down 3-0. Shappi lasted only one and one-third inning, giving up two hits and six runs with two earned. Cliff McMachen relieved Shappi and lasted just as long: one and a third. His six runs allowed were all earned on three hits and two walks.
A six run third inning put Modesto up 12-5 and the A's never looked back, winning 13-8 and tying the series at one game apiece.
It was a game to forget for the JetHawks.
JetHawk manager Wally Backman succinctly summed up the three hour and fourteen minute offensive marathon.
"Wasn't that just about the ugliest game you've ever seen?" said Backman.
Jon Zeringue added two RBI's to bring his league post season leading total to 11.
A's 13, JetHawks 8
Friday, September 17
Series tied 1-1
The Hangar, Lancaster
A Clear Case of Who Want's It More
The Lancaster JetHawks have a mascot named Ka-BOOM and players who hustle around from second base to home on a bottom of the tenth inning base hit in a tie ballgame, and when the throw home from one of the best arms in the California League reaches the catcher's mitt a step ahead and the season is on the line, it's all about…Ka-BAM!
The downside is injury to Modesto catcher and good guy, John Suomi. Suomi was on the receiving end of a playoff level hit, fed by the drive to score the winning run in a series tied one game apiece in a best of five championship series. One run meant a one game lead. One run meant one more game to go to win it all instead of facing elimination. That one run, scored by Reggie Abercrombie, sent one ambulance to The Hangar, one catcher to the hospital, one manager into a rage against the ump who made the call and one suspension for that manager from the league president.
One team celebrated wildly, while the other huddled solemnly around their fallen teammate. Once the severity of ‘The Hit' became apparent by Suomi remaining down, one baseball community gave an ovation of support to an opposing player as he was transferred into an ambulance.
No one wishes John Suomi anything other than good health and a best case scenario diagnosis, but none of the 1,870 at The Hangar on Saturday, September 18, will ever forget a game for the ages.
Game three of the California League Championship Series was a series in itself. There can be no doubt the two best teams in the league were competing against one another for a title, the way it's supposed to be.
Game three took ten innings to settle and the JetHawks won 8-7 in a game that would certainly motivate the A's for revenge the next evening in game four.
Modesto A's manager Von Hayes experimented with the line up by having six lefties in a row bat at the top of the order with the remaining three batters being right hand hitters. It paid off over five innings as the A's scored all eight of their runs within those frames. However, the A's failed to score in the sixth through tenth innings.
JetHawk starter Jesus Silva ran into trouble in the fourth when the inning led off with an error charged to shortstop Danny Richar, followed by a double and another error on Richar. This sequence allowed two runs to score in the inning, one earned, and the A's took the lead, 4-3.
The JetHawks battled back in the bottom the fourth. With two outs, Doc Brooks and Jarred Ball walked. Dan Uggla cleaned up the bases with a three-run round tripper to give Lancaster the lead, 6-4.
Silva started the fifth and allowed a base hit and a walk before being lifted for Ryan Holsten. A base hit loaded the bags for A's centerfielder Marcus McBeth who drove a single to centerfield, scoring two to tie the game. The A's added one more run before the inning was over to retake the lead, 7-6.
Lefty pitcher Justin Wells hurled three scoreless innings and was the only JetHawk pitcher to retire Modesto batters 1-2-3 in the game. He did so in the sixth and seventh innings while his team trailed by one and was the anchor of a pitching staff that held the A's offense to just one hit over the final five innings of the ten inning battle.
"He did a good job. He is the left handed funk master. He came in and threw strikes and challenged guys. He gave his team a chance to win," said Modesto pitching coach Scott Emerson of Wells performance.
Wells took his success against Modesto's line up in stride.
"They have a lot of lefties in their line up and I'm supposed to be a good lefty specialist. I just go in there and do my job. My catcher, Phil Avlas, deserves a lot of the credit too." said Wells.
JetHawk pitchers Mike Watson, who threw 1 1/3 innings, and Justin Wechsler, who went one, each allowed one walk and no hits to combine with Wells to keep their club within reach to pull out a victory.
In the seventh, Lancaster threatened after Zeringue hit a lead off double into the right center gap. The next batter, Jay Garthwaite, smoked one, but right to the Modesto centerfielder who was positioned perfectly. The next two batters failed to bring the tying run home and the JetHawks continued to trail by one.
Richar led off the eighth, getting on base by an error and was then sacrificed to second by Reggie Abercrombie but ended up stranded on second like his teammate Zeringue the previous inning.
With three outs to go before being faced with a 2-1 series deficit, the JetHawks kicked it into gear. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, ‘Big Game' Zeringue once again hit a double into the rightfield gap that was followed by a walk to Garthwaite and an infield hit by Luellwitz.
"I saw some good pitches to hit," said Zeringue after the game, when asked about his two late inning doubles.
Catcher Phil Avlas launched a deep flyball and sacrificed in Zeringue to tie the ballgame.
"Jon has gotten better and better since we signed him in late June. We can see why he was the organization's number two pick. He's got a big future in front of him," said Wally Backman in response to Zeringue's late game clutch performances.
The tenth inning brought Lancaster's version of a one-two punch. The first blow was a leadoff double by Abercrombie. With The Hangar shaking, the next batter, Doc Brooks, delivered a base hit that brought Abercrombie charging hard around third, and a la Pete Rose, he lowered his shoulder and bulldozed over A's catcher John Suomi. Suomi, who actually caught the ball a step ahead of Abercrombie, turned to apply the tag, and then it was lights out! Ka-BOOM Ka-BAM!
Suomi did not drop the ball and Modesto manager Von Hayes B-lined out of the dug out and engaged in a verbal shouting match with umpire Jeremy Sparling that quickly escalated into physical contact. Catcher John Suomi lay motionless while emergency services were called.
This one wasn't truly over till it was over.
"That's what's special about this team. Other teams will lie down but this one, it doesn't matter if you're up three, four, five runs against us. In the ninth inning, you better be on top of your game because everybody in this line up is capable of doing something to help you win," said second baseman Dan Uggla.
Reggie Abercrombie, on his tenth inning lead off double and eventual game winning score, summed up the drive inherent in JetHawk players.
"I just told myself if I get a base hit here, I got to score. Then Doc (Brooks) came up behind me with a base hit and I told myself, ‘I got to score.' Everybody expects me to score on a base hit. I had to do it for the team. Doc came up with the big hit and we won," said Abercrombie.
Although the JetHawks pulled off a great win, their manager recognizes that talent alone is not what won the game.
"The pitching struggled early in the game tonight. We fell behind and battled back to get a couple of different leads then fell behind again. We were able to pull it out in the tenth inning just by pure heart and determination by the players," commented Backman.
Baseball is a game of numbers, not time. There is no clock or two minute warning; therefore a team cannot be faced with too large a deficit with too little time to play as in basketball or football. Instead, it is all about 27 outs and a team with focus can score just as well with only one out left to go in the bottom of the ninth just as easily with no outs in the top of the second. And the JetHawks know this too well.
"The guys know how to handle pressure. They're winners and don't give up," added Jon Zeringue in the clubhouse after the game.
Asked for his reaction to the thriller of a ball game, Doc Brooks, who had the game winning hit and RBI said, "That's the game of Baseball. Anything can happen."
The JetHawks had one player strike out in each of the ten innings played except for two; the third and tenth innings.
JetHawk pitchers held Modesto MVP Brian Stavisky to an 0 for 2 performance, but walked him four times (3rd, 4th and 10th innings), and once intentionally in the top of the eighth with two outs and one on.
"A little bit but I'm not frustrated. I was still on base four times, I just have to score," said Stavisky when asked if he thinks Lancaster is pitching around him.
On ‘The Hit' by Reggie Abercrombie:
"It was absolutely clean." A's manager, Von Hayes
"It sounded like it was pad-to-pad. I came down the line with Reggie and it sounded like it was pad-to-pad and Reggie ain't wearing any pads. It was a heck of a hit."
JetHawk manager, Wally Backman
JetHawks 8, A's 7
Saturday, September 18
Lancaster leads series 2-1
The Hangar, Lancaster
Hit Parade…Round and Round They Go.
All that was missing to accompany the merry-go-round offensive display put on courtesy of the Modesto A's was the carnival music. You remember that annoying organ that plays that maddening pipe driven tune as round and round the people go, while everybody else watches.
Sing along…won't you?
"See the balls flying, this way and that way…see the runners running, around and around."
The A's led the league in batting for a reason and that reason was clear Sunday night as Modesto's offense looked as if it were participating in pregame batting practice against JetHawk pitching. The A's pounded out 21 hits and won 12-8 to even the series at two games each.
Lancaster starter and lefty Pete Zamora faced a balanced Modesto line up of R, R, L, L, R, L, R, L, R and lasted 2 2/3 innings, giving up three runs on nine hits and took the loss.
Modesto manager Von Hayes was suspended by for the remainder of the series by California League president Joe Gagliardi, who was in attendance at game four.
"Bump an ump, that's it, you're suspended. It's automatic," announced Gagliardi in the press box.
Modesto sent batters to the plate 52 times in game four as injured catcher John Suomi watched from the dug out, no doubt his crutches reminding his teammates of the previous evening's game ending hit, the loss and the prospect of elimination staring them in the face. It appeared to be all the motivation the A's needed.
The pregame words of Modesto coach Scott Emerson gave a clue as to the mindset of the players and the motivation behind it after game three's tenth inning loss.
"I think obviously the guy is out at the plate, the catcher blocked the plate and caught the ball. I've never seen a guy take a catcher out at the top and get called safe. The catcher hung on to the ball," said Emerson.
Lancaster failed to get anything going for the first three innings against Modesto starter Jeff Mussig, who entered the evening with a 0-1 post season record and 19.29 era.
In the fourth, shortstop Danny Richar reached base on an infield hit and later scored on an RBI single by Zeringue making the score 6-1 Modesto.
Right fielder Jay Garthwaite went 2 for 4 with four RBI and scored two runs. One of his hits was a two run home run scoring Jon Zeringue in the eighth.
Although always behind in the game, Lancaster never gave in, scoring four in the sixth, two in the eighth and one in the ninth.
Modesto pitching coach Scott Emerson managed for suspended manager, Von Hayes.
Lancaster had only one walk in game four. (Uggla)
Modesto's first 12 hits were all singles. The thirteenth was a homerun. After four innings, Modesto had fourteen hits.
A's 12, JetHawks 8
Sunday, September 19
Series tied 2-2
The Hangar, Lancaster
Dreams of a Championship Ring are ‘Gone with the Wind'
Although no one knew it at the time, when all was said and done, game five was won on a strange play in the top of the first inning. Had the sequence of events been different, the final score may have been as well.
Adam Bass got the start for the JetHawks on an evening that brought 25-30 mph sustained winds blowing in and across from left to right field. Under these conditions with Modesto's heavy lefty line up, it is the long ball that threatens most, but this evening it was a flared infield bloop that had the players on the field, fans in the seats and writers in the press box, scratching their heads.
With one out in the top of the first inning and runners on first and second, Modesto right fielder Jason Perry fisted a low bloop towards Lancaster shortstop Danny Richar. What appeared to be a routine play quickly changed as the swirling field level winds made the ball behave like a knuckleball. Richar quickly charged the ball while it was still in the air only to have it be pushed down and drop in front of him. When Richar picked the ball up, Modesto had the runner on second holding at the bag, the runner on first a few feet from the bag and the batter standing on first.
Each runner had held because on an evening without fierce winds, the play would have been a routine out. But not this evening. For a moment, all the players on the field were frozen as they took in a sight not often seen in baseball: one runner on first, one on second and one caught between the bags.
Instead of throwing to third for the easy out, then the third baseman throwing to second for what would have been an inning ending double play, Richar paused, then stepped on second, tagged the runner for good measure then threw to first. One of Modesto's runners was then ruled out by the second base umpire for the second out.
Instead of Lancaster going into the dugout to bat in the bottom of the inning, Bass needed to face another batter. Bass then gave up a two run double that gave Modesto a 2-0 lead.
Bass completed four innings, walked three and fanned five with four going down looking. He gave up all four Modesto runs.
Carlton Wells came on in the fifth to put Modesto down 1-2-3 for the third time he faced them in the series. All Star pitcher Enrique Gonzalez pitched the sixth and seventh, yielding one hit and a walk. Mike Watson pitched 2/3 of an inning in the eighth and allowed one hit. Justin Wechsler then relieved with two outs and struck out Modesto first baseman Mayo Santana to end the inning. Wechsler also pitched the ninth, allowing one hit, one strike out and a walk.
Lancaster was held hitless through the first three innings then got on the board in the fourth after Richar walked then scored on a double by Garthwaite. Garthwaite then scored on a base hit by Sean Luellwitz. Luellwitz was held up at third after Avlas doubled and the JetHawks stranded them both on base and after four innings, trailed 4-2.
In the fifth through eighth innings Lancaster failed to get anything going offensively, bringing three men to the plate each inning. A caught stealing in the fifth and an inning ending 5-4-3 double play in the sixth meant 12 up - 12 down in an elimination game.
But the ninth inning seems to be JetHawk time because once again, the JetHawks almost pulled out a miracle. Jon Zeringue, who is making a habit of coming up big when the team needs him most, came up big once again.
With one out in the ninth, ‘Big Game' Zeringue lined a one out double over the head of the Modesto right fielder that hit the wall. After being sacrificed to third by Garthwaite, Zeringue scored on a double by Luellwitz. The clutch two out two bagger was the second hit and RBI of the game for Luellwitz.
With The Hangar rocking, two outs, a man on second and down by one, catcher Phil Avlas battled Modesto pitcher Jeff Coleman. Going down 0-2 in the count, Avlas shortened his swing to protect the plate and fouled off several pitches in a row then popped out to left fielder and league MVP, Brian Stavisky. And that was the ball game. Modesto won 4-3 in a thriller and earned the title, 2004 California League Champions.
Although second place is not an objective for any franchise, manager Wally Backman kept things in perspective for ballplayers at the Single A level.
"Great things have happened this year. We've produced products that are going to be impact players in the big leagues," said Backman after the loss.
Backman's statement applies to both teams and truth be told...neither team really deserved to lose. It was one hell of an exciting series!
A's 4, JetHawks 3
Monday, September 20
Modesto wins series 3-2