With their first-round series tied, 2-2, the Philadelphia Rebels and Frostbite Falls Flying Squirrels met in a final hard-fought contest to determine who would face Yuma in the 2011 BARB World Series.
The first four games of the series between the East and Central division champions were all won by the home team. With the fifth game back in Frostbite Falls, Andrew Haynes was thinking he had a good chance to win. But Ronald Melkonian’s squad was coming off a 10-4 bashing of the Squirrels, seemingly giving the Rebels the momentum.
“King” Felix Hernandez was the choice to start for manager Mike Noakes and the host Flying Squirrels. Hernandez earned the start in Game One of the series and, despite allowing five runs in the second inning, earned the win with 6.1 six-hit, six strikeout innings. His opposite was Max Scherzer, who gave up just two runs while striking out eight in seven innings in a one-run Game Two loss. Not surprisingly, Rebels owner Melkonian inquired whether ace Cliff Lee was available—but alas, the lefty had started two nights before and thrown 79 pitches after also pitching in two of the previous three games, so the coaching staff decided not to push him.
Philly went easily against King Felix in the top of the first, but the Flying Squirrels’ bats struck quickly in the bottom of the inning. Jayson Werth, who was almost dropped to sixth in the lineup before the game, led off with a single. One out later, Albert Pujols drove a gapper to right-center field. Werth flew around the bases and scored just ahead of the relay!
FROSTBITE FALLS 1, PHILADELPHIA 0
Each club had a runner reach in the second inning, but nothing came to fruition. But in the top of the third, Philadelphia threatened. Matt Wieters, one of the heroes of Game Four, lined the fourth pitch of the inning down the right field line but decided not to test Werth’s arm to second. Scherzer had a good at-bat but flied out to center, and then Ichiro Suzuki dumped a ball into left-center to push Wieters to third.
Mike Aviles, the other big bat from the 10-run Rebel outburst two days prior, stepped up with one out and runners on the corners. He skied a ball to right, and Werth backed up a few steps to get his momentum going toward the plate. The ball hit the pocket and was fired in toward home…but WIETERS STAYED PUT! The big backstop is normally a fair runner, but after the long season it appeared his legs just didn’t have the willingness to go, and he held at third base.
With one chance missed, Philadelphia turned to door #2: Adrian Gonzalez. The slugging first baseman hoped to match his counterpart’s first-inning RBI and tie the game—at the very least. Gonzalez worked the count full, but he chased a bad ball and grounded weakly to Jose Reyes at shortstop!
Philadelphia had squandered a golden scoring opportunity, and they fell further behind in the bottom of the third.
Werth led off again and again reached base, this time on a seeing-eye single over second base. Reyes laid down a sacrifice bunt, bring Pujols to the plate. “Prince Albert” was clutch once again, lining a 1-2 pitch over Gonzalez’ head and bring Werth around.
FROSTBITE FALLS 2, PHILADELPHIA 0
Hernandez retired six of the next seven, and Frostbite Falls entered the sixth inning with the two-run lead intact. The rabid fans were beginning to sense a sixth BARB World Series trip for the home town team. One swing of the bat, however, silenced the cheers.
Aviles led off the sixth and worked a walk. With Hernandez approaching 100 pitches, Tim Lincecum got up in the bullpen to prepare for a rare relief appearance. Gonzalez also reached, lining a single to right field. That brought up Torii Hunter. After taking a called strike, the center fielder saw a pitch he liked.
A shot to the left field bleachers! Adam Lind took a few steps before realizing the futility. In the blink of an eye, Philadelphia had grabbed the advantage!
PHILADELPHIA 3, FROSTBITE FALLS 2
For the second straight game, Noakes was left to wonder what would have happened had he made the pitching change one batter earlier. Nonetheless, Lincecum entered and retired the next three hitters to close out the sixth. He also set down the side in order in the seventh and eighth innings, which kept the Squirrels within one run.
Lincecum’s spot came up to lead off the bottom of the eighth, and Noakes made the choice to send up Jason Heyward as a pinch hitter. The Rebels also made a change, replacing Scherzer (96 pitches) with Takashi Saito. Scherzer finished the night with a better line than his Game Two start, allowing two runs on four hits and a walk and striking out nine over seven innings.
The pitching change immediately caused second-guessing among Philly faithful. Saito walked Heyward on five pitches, bringing up Werth. The lead-off man smashed a ball to the right of third baseman Rodriguez, who came up with it on a dive! The throw to second retired Heyward, but Dustin Ackley’s throw to first was just late. Werth’s slightly above-average speed kept the Squirrels out of a double play.
Reyes was next up, and he grounded the ball through the middle to advance Werth to third and bring up Pujols, which also brought in Rebels closer J.J. Putz.
Putz and Pujols engaged in a spirited battle, with the count running full. Finally, Pujols came through by taking an outside pitch the opposite way, just out of Ackley’s reach! For the third time in the game, Pujols knocked in Werth, and this time it tied the contest.
PHILADELPHIA 3, FROSTBITE FALLS 3
Reyes moved to third on the hit, creating another first-and-third, one-out situation. Evan Longoria, though, popped up harmlessly on the infield. If the tie was to be broken, it would have to be done by Victor Martinez.
“V-Mart” was up to the challenge. After seven pitches and two throws to first, Martinez lined a ball to the right-center field gap. Reyes trotted home. Pujols motored around third and slid across the plate! Martinez was thrown out trying to stretch the double into a triple, but the damage had been done:
FROSTBITE FALLS 5, PHILADELPHIA 3
Rocky Top was rocking (pun intended)! Just three outs separated the Squirrels from a return trip to the World Series, where they had been unceremoniously swept by the Worcester Eliminators in 2010.
Still, the powerful Rebel lineup had one more shot. On came Flying Squirrels closer Andrew Bailey (acquired before the season from Philadelphia) to face Ethier, Rodriguez and Ackley. Bailey induced a can of corn from Ethier, but Rodriguez singled and was replaced by pinch runner Adam Jones. Ackley also singled, this a bloop to center barely over Reyes’ outstretched glove.
Wieters stepped up with runners on first and second and one away. Bailey recovered, though, and froze the catcher three straight times for out number two. Elvis Andrus pinch hit for Putz and kept the season alive with a base knock to center, though it was hit too hard for Jones to score.
Bases loaded, two out, top of the ninth in the decisive Game Five. Who would you trust to put the ball in play more than…
The aging superstar adjusted his sleeve as he stared out at Bailey and licked his chops. The scene was (almost) straight out of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s classic, “Casey at the Bat”. The only difference was that the majority of the crowd was clamoring for Ichiro to strike out, not strike the winning hit.
In the fashion of the poem, Ichiro took the first two pitches as called strikes. Bailey wound and threw again. Ichiro took his smooth cut. “But”, to paraphrase the final line of the poem, “there is no joy in Philadelphia—mighty Ichiro has struck out.”
The stadium erupted! Frostbite Falls was on the way to its sixth World Series in eight years! The Squirrels’ front office pumped their fists and shook hands in excitement. The players, led by career Squirrel Pujols, crashed the mound and piled on top of Bailey.
In the visitors’ suite, Melkonian, who was overcome with disappointment with his team and somewhat confused, exclaimed, “That’s it! Ichiro will never again wear an Arizo…I mean, Philadelphia uniform!”
The Squirrels had little time to celebrate. In just two days, they would be in Arizona beginning the 2011 BARB World Series against the Yuma Firebirds. It would be the first World Series meeting between the two teams since 2006, when the Squirrels prevailed in seven games.