Would 113 wins and a Cactus division title lead to domination from the Frostbite Falls Flying Squirrels? Or might the Grapefruit wild card St. Francis Kansans stun the BARB world after sweeping their wild card series? The first post-season meeting between the two teams since the 2013 World Series – and only the fourth all-time between teams run by Scott Hatfield and Andrew Haynes – would be their first semifinal-round matchup.
GAME ONE: LEAVE IT TO GARY
Frostbite Falls rookie catcher Gary Sanchez came to the plate four times. He struck out twice and stroked only one hit. All the home crowd remembered was a blast that put their team ahead for good.
With the score tied at two in the sixth inning, Sanchez stepped up as the leadoff batter against fellow youngster Carlos Rodon. The lefty’s second pitch was hammered to left and into the stands for a 3-2 Frostbite lead.
One run was all the hosts would need, as three relievers pitched shutout ball in relief of Francisco Liriano’s five-inning, five-walk (albeit just two runs and seven strikeouts) outing.
On the other side, Hatfield used a litany of relievers: seven, to be exact. They were needed thanks to Frostbite’s daunting lineup – and John Lackey’s ejection.
Lackey had compiled a 2.44 ERA in 10 starts after coming to the Kansans in a trade, and he was the choice to start game one after Max Scherzer and Rich Hill were burned dispatching the Oakland Larks in the wild card round.
The veteran right hander was staked to a 2-0 lead after a half-inning on four hits and an error, but Jose Altuve gave a run back in the bottom of the first on a blunder of his own – kicking a two-out ground ball with men on first and third.
After Liriano escaped a bases-loaded situation in the top of the third, and his offense immediately took advantage of their own rally with ducks on the pond as Evan Longoria lifted a sacrifice fly to right field to plate Jason Kipnis.
Lackey was sent to the showers early after arguing a ball four call to Jason Kipnis with two out in the bottom of the fourth.
Liriano suffered an injury during the game, leaving his availability for the remainder of the series in doubt.
FINAL: FROSTBITE FALLS 3, ST. FRANCIS 2
GAME TWO: SCHERZER OUTDUELS ARRIETA
His season won-loss record was at .500. His ERA? 4.07. But Max Scherzer struck out 290 batters in 2016 and was the acknowledged ace of the Kansans staff. He pitched like it to even the series in game two.
Scherzer pitched into the ninth inning and struck out 12 Flying Squirrels before giving way to hard-throwing relievers Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller, and his offense turned a late-inning nail-biter into a comfy cushion with three eighth-inning runs.
Each team scored twice in the second inning: St. Francis on a Yadier Molina double and subsequent Dexter Fowler single, and Frostbite Falls via Kendrys Morales’ two-run bomb to right-center field.
A couple innings later Fowler and Jose Altuve teamed up to put the visitors on top. Fowler led off the fifth by taking advantage of Jake Arrieta’s wildness, crushing a booming double to right field on a get-it-in 3-1 fastball. Altuve lived up to his contact reputation, dumping a soft single to center as Fowler motored around from second.
For a while it appeared game two would feature the same final score as game one, with the victors switched. The St. Francis offense made certain that wouldn’t be the case, as pinch-hitter Danny Valencia (a former Squirrel) took reliever Hansel Robles deep with two on and two out in the eighth for important insurance runs.
FINAL: ST. FRANCIS 6, FROSTBITE FALLS 2
GAME THREE: TEHERAN’S CONTROL THE ISSUE
Frostbite Falls starting pitcher Julio Teheran didn’t have control. But he was in control.
The righty took the ball for the now-visiting Flying Squirrels in game three of the semifinal round against St. Francis, and he walked six batters on 124 pitches. He earned the win, however, by pitching into the ninth inning with just one hit allowed, continually frustrating Kansans rallies.
Teheran’s opposite number was Rich Hill, the veteran returned to the big leagues after rediscovering his curveball.
Hill spun Uncle Charlie through a scoreless three innings, but Evan Longoria picked on a mistake with two out and the bases empty in the fourth for a 1-0 Frostbite Falls lead.
Hill held on until falling apart in the sixth; Alex Gordon and Paul Goldschmidt reached base to open the frame before St. Francis management called on erstwhile starter Adam Wainwright. “Waino” recorded an out when Longoria grounded slowly to shortstop for a fielder’s choice. Next up was Andrew Miller, the Kansans’ best reliever, for a same-side matchup against left-handed batting Jason Kipnis. The move backfired, as Kipnis opened the game up with a three-run blast to right as Scott Hatfield threw his arms in the air in the owner’s box at The Monastery.
Backed by the newfound run support, Teheran set down the next nine St. Francis hitters to reach the bottom of the ninth. A frozen rope off the bat of Justin Turner found Bryce Harper’s glove for the first out, but it was apparent Teheran was tiring. That became obvious when he issued three straight free passes, the last a four-pitch walk to Chris Davis.
Squirrels lefty Antonio Bastardo was given the task of facing pinch-hitter Danny Valencia. The home fans clamored for a game-tying grand slam, but all Valencia could muster was a sacrifice fly. Another slugging Danny, Espinosa, subbed for Yadier Molina and singled up the middle off Chris Withrow to plate the second Kansans run.
It all came down to Brad Miller. Withrow got ahead in the count and finally froze the slugger with a surprise 1-2 fastball.
FINAL: FROSTBITE FALLS 4, ST. FRANCIS 2
GAME FOUR: HAPP BESTS HELLICKSON
The St. Francis Kansans needed a win at home to keep their season alive. J.A. Happ set the foundation in game four, and his offense finished it off near the end to send the series to a deciding fifth game.
Happ’s counterpart, Jeremy Hellickson, saw early trouble with a deep Justin Turner fly out followed by a “Big Papi” big fly in the first. Two more crossed in the second – with Yadier Molina on second and two away, Jason Kipnis couldn’t handle a routine grounder off the bat of Brad Miller, and Dexter Fowler made the Flying Squirrels pay for the mistake with a booming double over the head of Mike Trout.
Frostbite Falls broke through in the fourth against Happ, as Evan Longoria led off with his second home run of the series. The visitors nearly put up a crooked number, but Franklin Gutierrez was gunned down at the plate after trying to score from first on a Didi Gregorius double.
Another close play at home went in St. Francis’ favor in the bottom of the inning, as Miller slid in just ahead of the Nick Hundley tag on another Fowler double.
In the fifth inning, however, Paul Goldschmidt decided to wake up. The hulking first baseman entered the game hitting .111 in the series and was 0-for-2 going to the fifth inning, when he launched a majestic solo blast with two away. Two innings later, he faced Andrew Miller with Trout on base and one out. This time it was a line drive whistling by the foul pole in left, good enough to tie the game and flummox Miller, the dominant reliever who also gave up a home run in game three.
The Flying Squirrels seemed to have momentum and a World Series birth in their sights – but they didn’t reckon with Jay Bruce.
A midseason Hatfield pickup, Bruce clubbed seven homers in 35 games with his new team, and he stepped to the plate with one out and one on in the bottom of the eighth. Mike Noakes countered with left-hander Antonio Bastardo, seeing as how Bruce hadn’t homered off a lefty in a Kansans uniform. It didn’t matter. The count in his favor, Bruce electrified the crowd with a two-run shot to right, giving St. Francis even footing in their quest for a championship appearance.
FINAL: ST. FRANCIS 6, FROSTBITE FALLS 4
GAME FIVE: ACES SQUARE OFF
John Lackey for the visiting St. Francis Kansans. Jake Arrieta towing his home rubber for the Frostbite Falls Flying Squirrels. In just a few hours, one would celebrate a trip to the 2016 BARB Classic, while the other would slowly sulk out the clubhouse doors.
For five-plus innings, neither starter flinched. In fact, one didn’t even allow a hit.
St. Francis pushed a runner the furthest in the early going, but Brad Miller was caught stealing third by the cannon of Gary Sanchez after he had beaten out a third-inning infield single.
The Kansans made some of their best contact against Arrieta in the fifth, as J.D. Martinez to right and Yadier Molina hit a laser to center – but right at Mike Trout for the third out of the frame.
Going to the bottom of the sixth, Lackey was on fire. One Frostbite batter reached base: a two-out hit-by-pitch in the second. Other than that, Lackey was setting down the vaunted lineup with ease. Just 16 batters faced, five strikeouts and 57 pitches thrown. He could do no wrong.
Until he faced Sanchez, with one gone in the sixth. The breakout star – with only one hit (a home run) to his name so far through four-plus playoff games – fell behind in the count before Lackey made his first mistake of the game. Dexter Fowler and Jay Bruce gave chase, but the ball disappeared into the roaring Frostbite faithful in left-center.
No-hitter, over. Scoreless tie, no more. Floodgates…OPEN.
Jason Kipnis was nailed in the hip, himself behind 1-2. Trout deposited a first-pitch fastball near the same place as Sanchez’ shot. An out, then Paul Goldschmidt grounded through the right side.
St. Francis ace Max Scherzer, ready in the bullpen, came in to the 3-0 ballgame, but Kendrys Morales wasn’t impressed. He greeted the burly righty with a single in the same spot as Goldschmidt’s. Alex Gordon lined a base hit to plate a run, bringing up Evan Longoria. The ninth batter of the inning worked the count to 3-1 and let it rip. GOODBYE! Scherzer and teammates slumped over as Longo’s third blast of the series cleared the fence. In just a few minutes, the game had gone from a Lackey no-no to almost no chance for his team. Frostbite lead, 7-0.
All that was left was Arrieta finishing the game off. Seemingly rusty after the long break on the bench, he gave up two runs – both of the solo homer variety – in the seventh before retiring the side in order in the eighth and ninth. His 114th pitch of the night saw J.D. Martinez flailing at 96 above the letters, followed by fireworks and a dogpile.
FINAL: FROSTBITE FALLS 7, ST. FRANCIS 2
St. Francis had taken the league’s best regular-season team to the middle of game five, but they couldn’t overcome an offense ready to break out at any time.
“I will return (next year) in an attempt,” said St. Francis Owner Scott Hatfield after the game, “to get into the playoffs for the 11th time, reach the Series for the fifth time and HOPEFULLY win a championship.”
Frostbite Falls quickly turned their attention to their next task: taking on two-time defending titlist and frequent World Series foe Yuma. The Flying Squirrels punched a ticket for the first time since 2013, when they beat the Firebirds and (then-) Friars to take their sixth BARB title. This would be the fourth time Chris Melkonian and Andrew Haynes squared off for the championship. The trophy went to Frostbite in 2005, 2006 and 2011, but Yuma was geared to end that streak in 2016.