The Yuma Firebirds (Cactus Division champion, 111-51 regular season) were the heavy favorites in the World Series matchup of division winners and looked to become the first back-to-back champions since the 2005-2006 Frostbite Falls Flying Squirrels. But the New England Yankee Stompers (94-68, Grapefruit Division champion) picked up from an early shock and helped produce one of the most nail-biting championship series in league history.
Yuma, coming off a 10-3 bashing of the Brownsville Cutters to clinch the division series, didn’t let up with the bats in their home park. New England lefty Jon Lester allowed one base runner in each of the first two innings, but a Chris Sale bouncer spelled bad news for the visitors as it emerged on the center field grass. Lester battled Joey Votto to a full count but lost him to put two on, and with two out he hung a 2-2 fastball to Buster Posey. The catcher put on his best uppercut and deposited the ball into the left field bleachers for a 3-0 lead!
The runs seemed to settle Sale, as the tall southpaw had allowed a pair of doubles in the early going but escaped unscathed. Now he set down the Yankee Stompers in order for two innings in a row while watching the advantage grow to four runs with a Steve Pearce solo home run in the fifth.
New England finally cracked the goose eggs in the top of the sixth. Lester was removed for a pinch hitter (who struck out) to begin the frame, but Dustin Pedroia stung a double and scored two batters later on a soft Miguel Cabrera single.
To replace Lester, New England called on Luis Severino. The rookie right-hander was magnificent in the division series, earning a win in two long relief outings. But he didn’t appear ready on the bigger stage, as the Firebirds scored three times in the bottom of the sixth. Pearce doubled to drive in two, and Votto brought Pearce around with a single.
Sale remained in the game into the ninth inning and recorded two outs in the final frame (including a strikeout of Cabrera, Sale’s 12th of the contest) before Yasmany Tomas got a hold of a 1-0 fastball. Jeff Samardzija got the final out to give Yuma a 1-0 series lead.
FINAL: YUMA 7, NEW ENGLAND 2
New England threw another lefty, and Yuma crushed the ball again. It was the same story as the past few years: the Firebirds offense feasted on left-handed pitching (29-12 against southpaws in 2015).
This time, Cole Hamels lasted one out into the seventh but was tagged for six runs. The first two scored in the bottom of the third, as Pearce singled, stole second base and scored on a Votto base knock. Votto then came around himself after a single and a double play. Hamels almost made it through the sixth without any more damage, but an Andrelton Simmons two-out triple plated Corey Seager. The death knell, however, was a one-out Posey homer—good for an additional three runs—in the seventh. It was a wonder Yankee Stomper management kept Hamels in the game to that point, considering he was over 110 pitches and Posey had blasted a three-run homer just the day before.
For the home side, David Price was dealing. He gave up six hits, spreading them all across different innings, walked none and struck out 12 in a 103-pitch shutout. It all combined for a commanding 2-0 lead for Yuma as the series shifted to the northeast.
FINAL: YUMA 6, NEW ENGLAND 0
Early returns made it appear the Firebirds would take a 3-0 lead in the World Series and likely coast to the title before returning home.
Yuma loaded the bases on two walks and a soft single in the top of the first inning, but Drew Pomeranz (another lefty for New England) induced a double play ball off the bat of Ben Zobrist to strand the runners.
More runners cluttered the bases in the third, as Pearce and Votto both singled to start the frame. Andrew McCutchen picked up an RBI with a sacrifice fly, but two fly outs kept the lead from growing.
Carlos Carrasco endured trouble of his own in the first, but he kept the Yankee Stompers off the board until the sixth. Matt Wieters liked the first pitch he saw in the bottom half and lined it down the right field line. He rounded first and second, then started for third…and slid in ahead of the throw! The catcher scored two batters later on a Pedroia bloop single to tie the score. Pedroia later made it to third base with one out, but Cabrera came up empty on three pitches to strand him.
Pomeranz, still transitioning from the bullpen, wasn’t long for the game. He tired in the sixth inning, having thrown 99 pitches, and Severino took over. He was more in control than his Game One appearance, setting down the Yuma hitters inning after inning (with runners here and there).
Wieters was at the forefront of another New England scoring chance in the eighth. He led off again and this time skied it into shallow left, where the ball fell between three Yuma defenders! A classic Texas Leaguer, but Wieters didn’t hustle and only got a single. He did take second when Xander Bogaerts grounded one just under the glove of Brian Dozier. Pedroia also put it on the ground, but he beat out the back end of a double play to put runners on first and third with one out. Yoenis Cespedes cashed in, driving a 2-2 pitch to the wall in right. Mookie Betts made the catch, but Wieters, even being a catcher, was able to score without a play. New England had resurrected their division series magic and come from behind to take a late lead!
Jonathan Papelbon was shaky in his first appearance of this World Series. He began the ninth against Seager, who drove the ball to left. Cespedes tracked it down in time, though. Dozier struck out, but Jayson Werth walked on a full count. Simmons, who had tripled the previous game, fell behind in the count and lasered a one-hopper…AT his counterpart, Bogaerts, whose throw was in time. To the delight of the home fans, New England was on the board in the series, now trailing 2-1.
FINAL: NEW ENGLAND 2, YUMA 1
Set back on their heels, the Yuma Firebirds turned to another cannon in their stable of aces to attempt to stay ahead in the series. Gerrit Cole was the choice, but he stumbled in the second inning. Corey Dickerson singled, and while standing on first he feigned an early steal. Cole hesitated in his delivery and was called for a balk! Tomas beat out a bouncer to second and New England had a prime opportunity, first and third with one out. After a visit from his pitching coach, Cole regrouped. He struck out Ian Desmond and ended the inning without damage as Rusney Castillo grounded into a twin killing.
Cole’s escape act allowed his offense to get on the board first. With McCutchen on third (after a Garrett Richards wild pitch) and two away, Seager beat out an infield single himself as the speedy McCutchen crossed the plate.
Both sides put a few runners on throughout the middle of the game, but neither could push across a run. Finally, Werth picked up a pinch-single to plate Seager with one down in the eighth.
Cole didn’t need help from the vaunted Yuma bullpen: he matched Price with six hits allowed in a complete-game shutout, though Cole walked two and struck out “just” nine. Just like that, Yuma was back ahead in the series by two—and more importantly, they needed just one more win to clinch the title.
FINAL: YUMA 2, NEW ENGLAND 0
The final game in Fenway Park was another close, low-scoring affair. Lester went back to the hill and dominated, turning in the THIRD six-hit, complete-game shutout of the series. He walked one and K’d five, and Wieters supplied all of the offense he needed with a two-out, two-run single in the fourth.
Sale pitched well for the Firebirds, striking out nine over six innings, but with his offense stymied (one three runners reached second base) he had to settle for the loss. On the plus side for Yuma, they were headed back home still up in the series, 3-2, and with Price awaiting the call for Game Six.
FINAL: NEW ENGLAND 2, YUMA 0
The desert was abuzz with excitement. Price, who authored the most dominant game of the series so far, was back in the home whites and ready to clinch a title.
Hamels was ready this time, too, though he walked two batters and had to escape trouble in the first. Dozier singled in the second inning, but he, too, was stranded.
Cespedes led off the top of the fourth and just cleared the center field fence, a chink in Price’s armor and a lead for New England!
A string of zeroes followed: the Yankee Stompers put a runner in scoring position in the sixth but came up empty, and Hamels kept Yuma’s scoreboard reading goose eggs other than Dozier’s hit.
With one away in the top of the seventh, Tomas skied a ball into the right-center gap. McCutchen came up a few feet short of catching it and then misplayed it, turning the bloop into a double. After a Desmond strikeout, Castillo snuck a grounder into center field. Tomas raced around third and slid across safely to increase the New England lead.
After three perfect innings in the middle of the game, Hamels finally allowed another runner: a leadoff walk of Werth. Leadoff walks can hurt a team, but in this case the lefty turned to his strikeout pitch and retired Seager, Dozier and Simmons without Werth stepping away from first base.
Hamels’ night came to an end in the eighth. After a groundout, Desmond threw away a routine grounder off the bat of Pearce. Unlike Game Two, the manager pulled Hamels at the first sign of trouble. Dellin Betances was called upon and struck out Votto, but he walked McCutchen and gave way to Papelbon. Posey had a chance, but he was on top of a breaking ball and pounded it into the ground to end the inning. The book closed on Hamels, showing 123 pitches over 7 1/3 innings of work, four walks, 11 strikeouts and just the one base hit allowed.
New England threatened insurance runs in the top of the ninth. Cabrera lined a single (puffing up a rather empty .292 average for the series) and advanced to third on a Tomas hit. With two out, Castillo walked. That brought up the Yankee Stompers’ hitting star of the series, Wieters…who grounded harmlessly to third base.
Papelbon stalked back to the hill for the ninth and silenced the crowd’s attempt to rouse their Firebirds to a comeback victory. Werth and Seager lined the ball into waiting leather, and Dozier fanned on a 1-2 slider. Somehow, someway, New England had shut down the Yuma offense and put up enough clutch hits to TIE the series and send it to the rubber match, a winner-take-all Game Seven! The third-straight 2-0 game ended as a one-hitter for the visitors, one of the most dominant pitching performances in BARB World Series history!
FINAL: NEW ENGLAND 2, YUMA 0
The atmosphere: ELECTRIC. The teams: PUMPED. The bats: NONEXISTANT?
Indeed, another pitchers’ duel was in store. Pomeranz vs Carrasco, a rematch of New England’s 2-1 victory in Game Three. This, however, was on Yuma’s turf, and they were doing everything they could not to disappoint their fans.
Most of the first three innings passed quietly. Seager made a great diving stop in the first, but Yuma couldn’t capitalize on the momentum. Werth doubled in the second and was seemingly glued to the bag as his teammates couldn’t move him around.
In the third, however, Carrasco decided to take things into his own hands. He dumped a single into center with one out, then dashed for second as Pomeranz wasn’t paying attention. A stolen base! The second by Yuma’s PITCHERS in these playoffs! Pearce popped up, but Votto made the pitcher’s hit hurt with a lined single to right. Carrasco hustled all the way around and back into the dugout with the lead.
The running apparently didn’t take anything out of the enigmatic righty, as he was perfect on the mound through five innings. Finally New England scratched out a runner as Wieters drew a walk in the sixth. The catcher then made an ill-advised attempt to replicate Carrasco’s daring, and he was thrown out trying to steal. It hurt the visitors even more as Pomeranz broke up the remaining no-hitter with his own single just two pitches later. Pedroia flied out to center to end the frame.
Again both sides struggled with the bat. The pitchers combined to set down the next 13 hitters in a row until Betances walked Simmons in the bottom of the eighth. Even that chance failed to materialize, as the tall right-hander struck out Betts (pinch-hitting for Carrasco) and Pearce to give his team one more shot in the ninth.
In the top half of the ninth, Jake McGee faced Wieters, who grounded to short. He struck out Bogaerts. Pedroia, with the season on the line, fouled off the first pitch. He took a called strike on the corner. One strike away from the title, McGee spun a rare, pretty curve….
FINAL: YUMA 1, NEW ENGLAND 0
The Firebirds clinched their second straight World Series and fourth in franchise history (including 2007 and 2009) and rushed the field!
In the owner’s box, Chris Melkonian exhaled with relief and hugged friends and family.
“This series was so intense,” Melkonian said. “I personally though we would roll in this series in five games. James (Herndon) had a hell of a squad that didn’t back down.
“On a different note, this was an unbelievable season for me. I feel it was our most complete to date. We effectively used platoons and defensive alignments and got the most out of an offense that underperformed early and had key guys hurt. Of course, we hope to make it three in a row in 2016.”
In his box, Herndon looked stumped at the way his team got shut down in the deciding game. Certainly he was trying to figure out how a hitter of Cabrera’s caliber flailed and failed (.259 average, no XBH, 1 run, 1 RBI) in his team’s second Game Seven loss in four years.
SERIES MVP: CARLOS CARRASCO
The Game Seven starter earned the accolades with one hit allowed over eight frames in the clincher while walking one and striking out eight. Along with a solid performance in Game Three, Carrasco (on the scrap heap before the season) was 1-1 with a 1.20 ERA. He struck out 17 batters in 15 innings and gave up just eight hits. For good measure, of course, he provided all of the scoring in the final game as well.
CONGRATULATIONS TO CHRIS MELKONIAN AND HIS YUMA FIREBIRDS