In a matchup of Grapefruit Division wild cards, the St. Francis Kansans (89-73) advanced in the playoffs for the third time , sweeping a pair of games from the Oakland Larks (85-77) to advance in the 2016 BARB playoffs. Timely power displays and, more importantly, great relief work allowed the Kansans to overcome a deficit in Game One and then ride out an early lead in Game Two.
GAME ONE: ST. FRANCIS at OAKLAND
In the first contest, Kansans ace Max Scherzer (12-12, 4.07 ERA) showed both of the characteristics that defined his regular season: the ability to get strikeouts (his 290 K’s led all BARB righthanders), and an unfortunate propensity to cough up the long ball. Scherzer tied Arizona RHP James Shields in allowing a BARB-leading 48 HR in the regular season, and when Hunter Pence cranked a solo shot leading off the second inning, it gave his opposite number a 1-0 lead: LHP Jaime Garcia (9-9, 3.12 ERA in the regular season) would allow only five baserunners to reach in seven frames.
Unfortunately for Garcia and the Larks, two of those baserunners had big blasts connected with them. RF J.D. Martinez hit a game-tying solo shot with one down in the top of the fourth, and the mighty mite, Jose Altuve, added another with two down in the sixth to narrow Oakland’s lead to 3-2 in the sixth. This all came after the Larks had put together a rally with two out in the fifth: Dee Gordon beat out an infield hit, Gerardo Parra drew a walk, and after a wild pitch allowed both runners to advance, Daniel Murphy hit a clutch two-run single to score both baserunners and put Garcia and the Larks a couple of good relief outings away from winning the opener:
OAKLAND 3, ST. FRANCIS 2!
It was not to be. Garcia was lifted after throwing 88 pitches, and Francisco Rodriguez was brought on to bridge the 8th to putative closer Hector Rondon (26 saves). “K-Rod” did exactly that, fanning pinch-hitter Brad Miller on four pitches, but Kansans leadoff man Dexter Fowler hit a solid single to put the tying run on first. Justin Turner popped up harmlessly to shallow left, but with one down up came Altuve again. The diminutive Kansans second-sacker, who had only homered 11 times in the regular season, hit his second bomb of the night, in the second row out in left field. The Kansans, for the first time in the game, had abruptly stolen the lead, bringing the stunned crowd to a murmur.
With that turn of events, the St. Francis brain trust turned to their deep bullpen, and asked lefty Andrew Miller (8-2, more than 100 K’s in the regular season) to get them a six-out save. Miller was equal to the task, fanning right-handed hitters Ian Desmond and Russ Martin in successive frames, then finishing the game by getting pinch-hitting rookie Tim Anderson to roll into a double play:
ST. FRANCIS 4, OAKLAND 3!
Sean Doolittle (1-0, 0.00), who had bailed out Scherzer in the bottom of the seventh, literally made only one pitch (to retire Daniel Murphy), but under the rules was awared win, while Miller earned the save. Francisco Rodriguez (0-1, 9.00) retired the last four batters he faced, but that was one big Altuve blast too late to console him or his teammates. The series now shifted back to Kansas, where Scott Hatfield’s club would only need to earn a split to advance.
GAME TWO: OAKLAND at ST. FRANCIS
The second contest matched enigmatic left-hander Rich Hill (9-3, 2.88) versus young fireballer Jake Odorizzi (12-9, 4.05). Hill’s work in the 2016 regular BARB season had been exemplary when available, but he had missed most of the summer with complications due to blisters, and his starts had been tantalizing in a bad way: Hill allowed few runs and struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings (good), allowing no HR (really good), but also seemingly pitching out of at least one bases-loaded jam per start, and usually more than one, with most hitters running up deep counts against him. Nerve-wrackingly for St. Francis, this playoff start featured more of the same, and Hill would depart after four-plus innings having allowed eight hits, two walks and a hit batter.
And yet, amazingly….NO RUNS.
In the first, the speedy Dee Gordon singled and Tim Anderson walked to put another rabbit on base. Daniel Murphy singled SHARPLY to right, but J.D. Martinez threw a one-hop bullet to Yadier Molina, who tagged Gordon out ahead of the throw for the first out! Anderson took third and Murphy advanced on the throw, so the threat remained. Yet (right-handed hitting) Nolan Arenado, the Larks’ best power bat, struck out on a high fastball. DH Chris Carter, another slugging threat, worked a 3-2 count and then walked to load the bases for Hunter Pence, who had homered in the first game. Pence fanned on Hill’s 25th pitch of the inning, however, leaving them loaded.
Can you say ‘snakebit’? Oakland put two baserunners on each of the next three innings as well. But Tim Anderson fouled off three sliders before fanning to end the second, Hunter Pence hit into a double play in the third after Chris Carter was hit by a pitch, and J.D. Martinez threw out ANOTHER runner (C Russell Martin) attempting to score at home on a Dee Gordon single for the final out of the fourth.
Meanwhile, as unlucky as Oakland’s lineup was, fortune smiled on the Kansans, who somehow scored two runs without a hard-hit ball in the third. Light-hitting SS Danny Espinosa drew a leadoff walk off a wild Odorizzi to start the frame, and Dexter Fowler beat out an infield hit to short. Odorizzi then hit Altuve to load the bases. Justin Turner’s fly to right scored Espinosa, advancing Fowler…then David Ortiz a deeper fly to the wall in left-center to plate the Kansans CF. J.D. Martinez then singled softly to right just over the leaping Murphy, and Oakland GM Jay Parks had seen enough: control specialist Marco Estrada, a force in the Larks bullpen this year (135 relief IP), was brought in to get the final out, and he did:
ST. FRANCIS 2, OAKLAND 0!
For the FIFTH inning a row, however, the Larks put two baserunners on . . . this time with one out. Having used up his daily Xanax prescription in the first four innings, St. Francis went to the bullpen as well, summoning Dave Robertson to finish the frame, which he did, getting Arenado to fly the wall in left, then fanning Chris Carter to end the threat.
Estrada worked a scoreless fourth and fifth to keep things close, but with one down in his third inning of work finally hung a breaking ball, that RF Jay Bruce (a cunning final-week pickup by the Kansans) deposited over the wall to expand his club’s lead to three runs. With that gap in play, St. Francis allowed hard-throwing southpaw Carlos Rodon an opportunity to contribute working the top of the seventh to left-handed hitting Charlie Blackmon . . . who promptly tripled into the RF corner, where he scored on a solid single by Dee Gordon:
ST. FRANCIS 3, OAKLAND 1!
Things were getting interesting. Playing mix-and-match with his deep bullpen, GM Scott Hatfield use Ian Kennedy to face Ian Anderson (K), Sean Doolittle to work to Dan Murphy (HBP) and Ken Giles to work to Nolan Arenado, a slugger who . . . .
TOPPED a softly-hit ground ball just past a diving Brad Miller, into left field, loading the bases, putting the tying run on second for Chris Carter. Having already used four pitchers in the frame, the St. Francis brain trust decided to continue to put their trust in Giles, whose BARB regular-season numbers (2-3, 5.60) inspired no confidence. But Giles got Carter to take a slider for ‘strike 3’, and then induced Pence to chase a slider in the dirt: TWO STRIKEOUTS, and a potential rally denied, by dominant pitching from an unexpected source.
Oakland brought on Hector Rondon to start the bottom of the 7th, and their erstwhile closer gave them a scoreless frame. Impressed by the way Giles finished the previous inning, the Kansans let him begin the top of the 8th by fanning Ian Desmond, but when he walked Russell Martin, lifted him in favor of Andrew Miller, the hero of Game One. Miller uncorked a wild pitch against pinch-hitter Ketel Marte, and eventually walked him. But Dee Gordon swung through a 2-2 cutter for the second out, and Tim Anderson forced Marte at second to end the inning.
Francisco Rodriguez, the loser of Game One, got a chance to redeem himself in the bottom of the eighth, but walked J.D. Martinez on five pitches. Previously-hitless Chris Davis doubled off the top of the wall in right-center to send Martinez to third, and when Jay Bruce walked, the bases were loaded with none down. Yadier Molina, batting with a chance to deliver a ‘kill shot’ to Oakland’s hopes, still stung them with a scoring fly ball to left. Pinch-hitter Danny Valencia and Dexter Fowler couldn’t cash in further, however, leading to this score after eight frames:
ST. FRANCIS 4, OAKLAND 1!
Andrew Miller got to start his fourth inning of the series in order to pitch to the left-handed hitting Daniel Murphy, who hit a HOT shot, but right at Altuve. The ball popped out of his extended mitt, but he stayed with the play and retired Murphy at first. Kenley Jansen (another late August ‘get’ for the Kansans) then came on after a September that saw him win two and save three more games. Jansen had fanned an incredible 146 batters in the BARB regular season, more than any other reliever in the league. But the Larks weren’t having any of THAT. Nolan Arenado hit an 0-1 pitch sharply, but right at Brad Miller, who had been brought in for ‘defense’ after Valencia had hit for the (much better-fielding) Danny Espinosa. But Miller stayed with the smash, and his throw across the diamond was in time to nip Arenado at first. Down to their last out, the Larks called on left-handed power source Brandon Moss off the bench, who swung at the first pitch, and hit it HARD . . . .
Straight up. To the infield. To Justin Turner, who SQUEEZED it for the final out, to complete the sweep and send St. Francis to face the powerhouse Squirrels lineup:
KANSANS WIN THE SERIES, 2-0!
|Playoff MVP Jose Altuve being bear-hugged by teammate Justin Turner.|