When announcing lineups, the Rochester Red Wings often play “Love Rollercoaster”. It fits this season, as the AAA Twins affiliate seemed to be on one that had highs, lows, loops, corkscrews and no shortage of screaming and yelling. And now, after a blowout 13-3 victory on the final day of the season and a stunning 1-0 extra-inning defeat by the Norfolk Tides (AAA Orioles), the Wings now have made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 by virtue of holding a tie-breaker against Norfolk.
It was by no means a sure thing. Then again, there was very little “sure” about this season. The Wings started 2-11, they were in last place as late as May 29, they were in first later in the year, only to lose both that lead and also seemingly the wild card in a late skid after their best player (Chris Colabello) and best pitcher (Andrew Albers) were called up… and then, finally, at the end, they were able to pick themselves up and get to the playoffs, with a little luck.
(Go below the jump for more)
You see, going into this final day of September 2, the Red Wings were a full game back of Norfolk. Because the Wings had won the season series with Norfolk, they held the tiebreaker. But still, to get in the playoffs, they would need to not only defeat Scranton’s RailRiders (AAA Yankees), but have Norfolk lose to the Durham Bulls (AAA Rays). And while the Bulls had the best record in the league, they were resting some of their players, partly to prepare for the playoffs, and partly to keep certain players above .300 in the batting average category. Seriously. So, it wouldn’t take a miracle (unlike the Jeff Clement HR game I wrote about earlier), but it would require some luck, like I said earlier.
This, of course, assumed that Norfolk would even play. With rain up and down the East Coast, there was a chance that Norfolk could rain out. And, because of the fact that Minor League Baseball doesn’t have make-up games tacked on at the end of the season, that would have meant that Norfolk would be able to clinch by the slightest of percentage points, no matter what the Wings did. Some Rochesterians, no doubt, had images in their heads of the Norfolk GM laughing maniacally as he “accidentally” turned on the sprinkler system all night, flooding the field and allowing his team to head to the playoffs thanks to the arcane powers of mathematics. Thankfully, such a cartoonish scenario had no basis in reality, and the weather was good enough to play in down in Norfolk.
That game started a bit after noon, while the Red Wings-RailRiders game started a bit after one, with Scott Diamond on the mound for the Red Wings. It didn’t begin well: the very first Scranton batter, former Cub Corey Patterson, hit a home run. But by the next time that Scranton scored (in the third inning), the game in Rochester would be all but over, as the bottom of the first saw the Red Wings score nine runs. Both Eduardo Escobar (who would end up 4-5 with a HR and 3 doubles) and James Beresford had two hits in that inning alone.
Meanwhile, down in Norfolk, the game remained scoreless.
In the top of the third, Scranton tried it’s hardest to make the game somewhat interesting, getting four straight singles to bring in two runs and make it a 9-3 game. And then, amazingly, the Wings were able to squelch the would-be rally in the quickest way possible. With men on second and first, Adonis Garcia hit the ball hard to third-basemen Ray Olmedo, who stepped on the third-base bag (one), then he threw to 2B Beresford at second (two) and then finally on to first, where the slow and (to be honest) barely-trying Garcia was out (three). A triple play, killing the final rally that Scranton even bothered putting up (they honestly just wanted to go home, and most of them were swinging at the first pitch).
The game went on, and as the Wings added more runs in the bottom of the third (including Escobar’s HR), it was still scoreless in Norfolk.
And so it went on. With the result of the game in Rochester not much in doubt anymore, an ordinary game ensued, and the eyes of those with smartphones turned south.
6th inning in Norfolk: 0-0.
7th inning: 0-0.
8th inning: 0-0.
9th inning: 0-0.
It was about the fifth inning in Rochester when the 10th inning of the Norfolk game occurred. In Rochester, it happened as whispers: “Durham has men on,” would say one person. “Two men on, one out,” would say another. And then, finally, the smart phones read “1-0 Durham”, as Jason Bourgeois drove home a run.
And then, the top of the 10th turned to the bottom of the 10th, and the wait in Rochester continued, even as the game in Frontier Field went on into the 6th inning. Norfolk got the lead-off man on, but then Kirby Yates of Durham struck out the next three. The game in Norfolk was over, and Norfolk had lost. At first, there was just sporadic yelling and cheering in certain sections of the stadium, but then, at the end of the half-inning, the final score from Norfolk was flashed on a big screen. There was much rejoicing in Rochester.
After that, it was only a matter of time. Scranton put in catcher Ryan Baker to finish the last few innings, and amazingly his ridiculously slow knuckleball (at one point it got as low as 38 MPH) was enough to hold the Wings to just one run (a Eric Fryer homer in the 8th). Virgil Vasquez pitched the final two innings for the Wings (Diamond threw 7 innings and gave up 7 hits and 3 ER before being pulled), and in the end, it was Ray Olmedo who caught the pop-up in foul territory that finished the game and brought about a grand celebration on the field.
The Red Wings will next face the Pawtucket Red Sox in a best-of-5 series starting Wednesday, with Cole De Vries likely to take the mound. No matter the outcome of the coming series, this season has been a study in the strange world that is AAA baseball. Managers must serve the parent club while also trying to bring wins to the fans of the city in which they play. Rosters change quickly and often without warning, with players coming and going and sometimes being forced to wear funny-looking charity uniforms.
And yet, in the end, it can end just like it could in MLB: with a victory pileup in the infield as a playoff berth is clinched.
So the Roller Coaster rolls on…