Wisconsin 0 @ South Bend 4
The South Bend Silverhawks brought a championship banner home Saturday, and the hero was a name that has been mentioned often, but not always favorably, in these pages.
Frankly, with the emergence of Kellen Raab, the continued success of Koley Kolberg, and the dominance of Ross Ohlendorf in the playoffs, when the word came down that Steven Jackson would be starting the deciding game five of the Silverhawks Midwest League Championship series the sound you heard was not a sigh of relief.
Mind you, that's not because Jackson is some sort of also ran. The Diamondbacks 10th round pick out of Clemson in 2004, Jackson has a low 90s fastball, an above average hard curveball and a splitter that's a middle infielder's dream, inducing ground balls and forcing uncomfortable swings. Jackson's 10-5 regular season record hid a season full of inconsistency for the right hander, but one thing is for sure, Jackson is ready for big starts. At perennial powerhouse Clemson Jackson was their #1 starter until minor shoulder surgery ended his junior year early.
Still, because the Silverhawks had swept their first two series, Jackson was making his first appearance in the playoffs. Though the word had come down that all minor league teams were to throw their starters on the regular four days of rest, because of the consecutive sweeps, resulting in off days, Jackson's spot had been skipped in the rotation. He would have been scheduled in game one, but that start went to Raab, who was brilliant. Game two had featured Ohlendorf's gem, Kolberg was robbed in game three and Kinsey had been rocked in game four, which had evened the series at two games apiece.
In the 'Master of the Obvious' category FutureBacks will let you know that Saturday was a big start. Steven Jackson's first start of the playoffs would be the start of the playoffs.
He was ready.
Jackson went eight innings, allowing just five hits, not walking a batter, and striking out a season high nine. It was clutch pitching from a clutch pitcher in the biggest game of his short pro career. Only twice did a runner reach second base, and on both occasions they did so via the stolen base. Jackson even picked up his defense in the fifth inning, after third baseman Augie Murillo misplayed a ground ball Jackson got the next hitter to ground into a double play. The ground ball was something the Timber Rattlers would have to get used to. Jackson induced 10 ground ball outs on the day, against only five fly outs, all in a day's work for the big right hander.
For six innings Wisconsin starter Cibney Bello matched Jackson pitch for pitch, shutting the Silverhawks out. In the seventh though the middle of the South Bend order got comfortable, and got to Bello. Right fielder Carlos Gonzales had been slumping throughout the playoffs, hitting just .225 in the first eight games. He was 0-3 coming into the seventh inning, but in his fourth chance against Bello he started things off with an infield single, giving the Silverhawks their first baserunner since the second inning. Bello moved to the stretch for the first time in five innings, and the Silverhawks took advantage. First baseman Cesar Nicolas continued his incredible playoff run by crushing a Bello pitch over the left field wall, and finally the Silverhawks were on the board. Before Bello could even collect himself Murillo made up for his earlier error by going back to back with Nicolas, putting thoughts of his poor playoff performance (he hit just .135 in the postseason) behind him. Suddenly the Silverhawks offense, who had been getting dominated, found themselves with a three run lead. Bello would face one more hitter, issuing a walk to DH Orlando Mercado, before being lifted.
The Silverhawks would add an insurance run in the top of the ninth when Mercado, center fielder Jereme Milons and left fielder Brandon Simon would collect three straight singles, and in the ninth the Silverhawks would turn the ball over to Matt Elliott, who struck out two of the three hitters he faced in a perfect ninth inning, making the Silverhawks the Midwest League Champs.
The Silverhawks MVP of the playoffs was a no doubter. Though shortstop Alberto Gonzalez hit over .400 and scored seven runs, Cesar Nicolas basically engraved his own name on the award with the seventh inning homer in game five of the championship series. Nicolas led the Silverhawks offensively in virtually every category, hitting .424, collecting 10 RBI, two homers, slugging over .600
On the pitching side there were several candidates, and right at the top would be Jackson. His masterful game five work was his only start, but how much more could you ask for out of one start. Raab could also get consideration, as he won both his starts, allowing just three earned runs in his 12 innings, and Kolberg was masterful, not allowing a run in either of his postseason outings. Closer Matt Elliott converted all three of his post season save opportunities, lefty reliever Hipolito Guerrero should not be overlooked, as he was perfect in all five of his appearances, and the staff in general was amazing, carrying an ERA of 3.08 in their nine postseason games.