The Pacific Coast League-champion Tacoma Rainiers scored three times in the top of the third inning, tying the score and giving the impression that the Triple-A National Championship Game might be a competitive affair. It wasn't.
The Columbus Clippers, International League winners and top Indians farm club since 2009, scored four runs in the fourth inning and five in the fifth as part of a 12-run, 19-hit barrage. Final score: Columbus 12, Tacoma 6 (box score). But the Rainiers can take solace in the fact that they scored six runs, a tally that the parent Mariners have matched or exceeded just twice in the past month.
This year's Triple-A winner-take-all contest, which has been held annually in Oklahoma City since ’06, featured none of the drama of last season's event, during which Durham, the IL champs, knocked off Memphis in 11 innings.
With the victory, Columbus helped the IL take another step toward evening the score. The PCL still leads the series 3-2 after Tucson (’06) and Sacramento (’07 and ’08) won the first three showdowns.
Columbus left fielder Jerad Head served as unlikely postseason hero. Batting seventh in the order, the 27-year-old wrapped up Championship Game MVP honors by going 3-for-4 with two doubles, two runs scored and four RBIs. Head drove in 15 runs by batting 16-for-33 (.485) during the Clippers' nine-game run to the top. They dispatched Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) and Durham (Rays) in four games each on their way to winning the Governors Cup.
Signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Washburn (Kan.) University in ’05, Head spent three seasons at the Class A level and most of the next two in Double-A. He bounced between Akron and Columbus this season, playing in just three games for the Clippers during the last three weeks of the season and batting 2-for-11 (.182).
In reality, Columbus had many heroes. First baseman Wes Hodges went 0-for-4 with a walk, but every other regular collected at least two hits in the final game. Head, shortstop Josh Rodriguez and 23-year-old DH Jason Kipnis collected three hits apiece.
If such an award existed, Kipnis would have won most impressive prospect honors for the postseason. The ’09 second-round pick finished the year in Double-A but got bumped up to Triple-A for the IL playoffs. Playing DH exclusively in deference to regular second baseman Cord Phelps, Kipnis went 7-for-18 (.389) in the IL playoffs and hit for the cycle in the Game Four clincher against Durham.
All three of Kipnis' hits in the Championship Game last night went for extra bases. He smashed a double, a triple and a majestic home run to left-center field that just kept traveling off the bat.
Clippers lefthander David Huff allowed all six of Tacoma's runs in his six innings of work. He struck out six, walked two and allowed the monstrous third-inning, two-run homer to right fielder David Winfree that momentarily breathed life into the Rainiers. Columbus relievers Zach Putnam, Josh Judy and Vinnie Pestano contributed three scoreless innings to close out the win.
Led by Triple-A rookie manager Mike Sarbaugh, Columbus scored 59 runs (7.48 per game) during the IL playoffs. They ran up individual tallies of 11, 18 and 13 runs scored—and that's not even counting the 12-run outburst in Oklahoma City.
"The key in the playoffs is to get hot at the right time," Sarbaugh told The Columbus Dispatch following last night's win. "The first two series in the International League it was mainly about our starting pitching. But our bats really came alive that last game in Scranton and just continued."
Columbus pitchers allowed just 24 runs (2.94 per nine innings) during the IL playoffs, leaving little doubt as to the identity of the IL's finest team.
But Columbus' supremacy nearly did not come to pass. Sarbaugh managed Akron to the top of the Double-A Eastern League in ’09, and he had Columbus pointed in a similar direction this season. The Clippers went 56-36 in the first half and seemed poised for great things.
But that's when the Indians came calling, promoting Columbus lineup fixtures like Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Jason Donald, Luis Valbuena and Jordan Brown to the big leagues. Starting pitching stalwarts like Carlos Carrasco, Jeanmar Gomez and Josh Tomlin also were gone before the playoffs started.
Even as the Clippers patched cracks with reinforcements from Double-A like Phelps, Rodriguez, righthander Paolo Espino and third baseman Jared Goedert, the rival Louisville Bats began to fire on all cylinders.
Louisville roared back into the Western Division race by winning 24 of its first 27 games after the all-star break and going 35-16 in the second half. The Bats supplanted the Clippers at the top of the division, winning the West for the third straight year and relegating Columbus to a wild card entrant.
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