With eight games to play, a five game lead and the team biting at your heels in town for the opening series, Lancaster put to rest any question as to why they finished the regular season number one.
In a week without their manager, ‘Wiley' Wally Backman, the club clinched the Southern Division second-half championship to bookend with the organization's first half feat, the second such accomplishment in four years for the Lancaster Jethawks. This year, the Modesto Athletics of the Northern Division won both halves as well, making this the first time since 1994 each division winner won both halves in California League play.
In town, leading off the season ending eight game homestand was the second place Inland Empire 66'ers (35-28). The Jethawks (39-23/82-50) managed a 2-2 split and a title.
Lancaster dropped the first two games, then reversed course, making history on the final game of the series with a 12-2 victory on Thursday night, September 2.
In the two loses, Doc Brooks, splitting time between DH and leftfield, went 6 -10 with three home runs, four runs scored and four RBI's. Lancaster dropped the first game 8-5 and the second, 7-5.
Brooks continued his offensive power surge in the third game of the series, going deep three games straight, to lead Lancaster to an 8-4 victory and leaving the door open to clinch the title against the second place 66'ers the next evening.
In relief, Mike Watson pitched a strong eighth inning, walking the leadoff man then regrouping to strike out the next three batters swinging.
In the final game of the series, still managed by hitting coach Eric Fox, Brooks moved back to DH, allowing newcomer Jon Zeringue to play leftfield. Batting fourth, Zeringue went 3-5 with a double, a homerun, scored two and collected three RBI's in the Jethawks 12-4 victory. The win gave Lancaster the second half title for the Southern Division.
Offense was spread evenly with six players having a multi-hit game. Doc Brooks, Sean Luellwitz, Reggie Abercrombie, who came to Lancaster as part of the Steve Finley trade and Phil Avlas, each collected two hits a piece. Luellwitz also scored three runs.
Second baseman Dan Uggla joined Zeringue with three hits and one upped his teammate by adding four RBI's and three runs scored.
Al Shappi (1-0) took the mound and took advantage of a 6-2 third inning lead to pitch five innings, giving up five hits, two earned runs and striking out six to earn his first victory as a JetHawk.
Despite dropping the first two games, the Jethawks bounced back to win two in a row and earn the split which pleased manager Wally Backman.
"It's the make up of the players, they don't quit. That's what we've instilled in these guys. Winning is part of development. These guys have learned how to win and have learned what it takes to win," said Backman.
Jon Zeringue broke the tip of his right index finger while making a play. Backman plans to use Zeringue only as a designated hitter in the playoffs.
On Friday, September 3, league officials announced the 2004 California League Post-Season All Star team. The list includes two Jethawks: Catcher Phil Avlas and Pitcher Enrique Gonzalez.
# 8 Phil Avlas
BA SLG. G AB R H TB 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS E
.315 .516 109 384 64 121 198 22 8 13 68 29 54 5 4 17
B/T HT. WT. D.O.B. Residence
R/R 5-11 175 12/17/82 North Hills, Ca
"Avlas is the sergeant behind the plate. He runs the game and he has the ability to run a staff. He should have made the All Star team the first half." Wally Backman
"I have a good team that backed me up. It's been a hell of a year." Phil Avlas
# 23 Enrique Gonzalez 2004 final stats:
W-L ERA G CG GF SH SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WP
13-6 3.22 42 17 0 5 0 142.1 128 64 51 13 44 110 3
B/T HT. WT. D.O.B. Residence
R/R 5-10 195 7/14/82 Bolivar, Venezuela
13 wins makes Gonzalez the third pitcher in franchise history to do so in a single season. Ken Cloude had 15 wins in 1996 and holds the team record.
Named California League's pitcher of the week on August 2.
On September 4, Wally Backman named Gonzalez as his game one starter for Southern Division Championship Series scheduled for September 11.
9-2 record against playoff opponents.
4-0 against Lake Elsinore Storm.
"Gonzo was a reliever to start the year. He's made the adjustment and excelled since he's been in the rotation." Wally Backman
With first place secured, the season ending four game series began Friday, September 3 against last place High Desert (22-44/48-89). Adam Bass (9-8, 5.00) went 6 innings and took the loss. The Jethawks fell 8-1.
Lancaster's only run came after Doc Brooks opened the bottom of the sixth with a single. Brooks scored on a two out triple to center field by DH Jay Garthwaite.
Bass gave up five runs through six innings, two on back to back home runs by Maverick first baseman Travis Hinton and third baseman Jeff Eure to start the top of the fourth. Bass then hit the next batter, right fielder Mario Mendez, on the first pitch.
After a fielders choice and a single followed by a stolen base, Bass had two on and one out. Recomposed, Bass struck out the next batter swinging then threw hard inside to force a weakly fisted grounder to second to end the inning.
Bass ran into trouble once more to start the seventh. A lead-off inside the park homerun by Maverick centerfielder Kennard Bibbs, followed by a walk and a single, led acting manager Eric Fox to go to the bullpen. Bass finished with five strikeouts.
With the game in control by High Desert, the bottom of the ninth brought some excitement as Maverick pitcher Sam Smith threw high and inside with one out and one on, brushing back Reggie Abercrombie.
Abercrombie and catcher Jeremy Frost exchanged words and were quickly separated. Smith then retired Abercrombie on a fly ball to centerfield and got Luellwitz to pop out to shortstop to end the game.
The second game of the series on Saturday, September 4, was won by Lancaster 5-1, behind starter and California League All Star pitcher, Enrique Gonzales. Gonzales (13-6), named an All Star a day earlier, threw one hit, shut out ball over five innings, walking one and striking out three.
The game also featured the return of Jethawk manager Wally Backman who had finished a 10-game suspension. Backman was suspended for allegedly bumping an umpire on August 24. Welcome Back Wally Backman night coincided with Lancaster wearing Arizona Diamondback replica uniforms.
Backman was asked by a local print sports reporter after the game about his decision to pull Gonzalez after five innings after such a strong showing.
"One hit through five innings. He's done. He's ready for game one in the playoffs," said Backman.
The offense welcomed back their manager with a three run bottom half of the fourth, giving Lancaster a 4-1 lead. Abercrombie's solo home run with one out began a string of six consecutive hits.
Doc Brooks, batting leadoff and playing left field continued his hot pace going 3 for 4 and right fielder Jared Ball scored two runs to increase his team leading total to 81.
Jesus Silva (11-6, 4.38) started Sunday's game three and faced 30 batters and completing six innings of work. He gave up four earned runs and struck out one in the Jethawks 8-2 loss.
Doc Brooks (.331) had a 12 game hit streak snapped, going 0 for 2 with two walks and two strike outs. Brooks also had a six game multi-hit streak going into the game as well.
Jon Zeringue (.332) battered third as the DH and in spite of a broken fingertip, went 1 for 3 with a walk and a solo homerun, his ninth of the year.
Prior to Sunday's game I spoke with All Star catcher Phil Avlas and asked about being selected an All Star.
"It was an honor to be named. I worked my butt off from my off-season till now, so it all paid off," said Avlas.
Avlas and his battery mate Enrique Wilson were both named to the league All Star team the same week and I asked him his thoughts on managing a staff.
"Every staff, you have to get comfortable with them. Every year you have a different staff. So it's one pitcher, one pitch at a time. It's a big part of the game," said Avlas.
Prior to the season's final game, the California League named Lancaster's Doc Brooks, ‘Player of the Week' for the week ending September 5. Brooks batted .517 and collected 15 hits with four homeruns with a .966 slugging percentage during the period. He also scored eight runs and added six RBI's. Brooks is the fourth Lancaster Jethawk to be named player of the week in 2004.
The final game of the season was won by the Jethawks 6-1 and was dominated by great defensive plays. First baseman Sean Luellwitz displayed quick reaction to a line drive over the bag in the first inning. He also made a spectacular catch on the run in foul territory to end the second.
Reggie Abercrombie impressed the crowd with a magnificent sliding catch to rob High Desert third baseman Jeff Eure of a base hit in the fifth. In the seventh, Jethawk second baseman Dan Uggla showed range, balance and arm strength by going to his right, taking away a certain hit, turning, jumping and throwing to record the second out of the inning.
Jon Zeringue pinch hit to lead off the seventh and deposited the first pitch over the left field wall.
Jay Garthwaite hit a two run home run with two outs in the bottom of the first, scoring Uggla. The two runs were enough as Backman threw six pitchers in nine innings in preparation for the Division Championship series.
Pete Zamora got the start and threw four scoreless innings, facing 14 batters, giving up three hits and fanning two. Adam Bass, AJ Shappi, Sam Smith, Carlton Wells and Justin Wechsler each worked one inning.
The Jethawks finished the second-half 43-27 and 86-54 overall.
Monday's season finale was Lancaster's last shot to rise to the challenge to win as many games (43) as the first-half club, issued to the team by Backman at the break. Avlas and outfielder Jared Ball are the only two players from the first-half still with the team.
Lancaster will play the winner of the three game series between Inland Empire 66'ers and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. The Jethawks are 10-4 at home against Inland Empire and 15-13 overall. Lancaster posted an impressive 11-2 record at Rancho Cucamonga and 20-7 overall in 2004.
"Inland Empire's strength is their pitching. Rancho Cucamonga has a good offense and is a solid ball club. The key is to keep Ibar off base," said Backman.
By winning the first half title, Lancaster has earned a first round bye in the playoffs and has home field advantage in the Division Championship. Game one of the California League Southern Division Championship is scheduled for September 11 at the Hangar in Lancaster.