By Greg Auman
CLEARWATER, Fla.—The Northern Division has been the high Class A Florida State League’s better half this season. St. Lucie paces the Southern Division, but at just three games over .500 they would be tied for fourth in the six-team North.
That North exerted its dominance once more on Saturday night in defeating the South 5-3 in the FSL all-star game before a crowd of 5,134 at Bright House Field, home of the Phillies' Clearwater affiliate.
Bradenton first baseman Aaron Baker hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning and walked twice to take home game MVP honors in a losing effort. The former Oklahoma Sooner said he was much more relaxed this year than a year ago as a South Atlantic League all-star.
"This was a lot of fun. Last year I was pretty nervous and didn’t play like I would like," said, a Pirates 11th-round pick in 2009. "I think having gone through that, it was more enjoyable and was able to get a nice little hit."
Daytona owns the FSL's best record at 46-21 as well as a seven-game lead in the North, and Cubs batters had three straight hits to bring home the deciding runs in the fifth. Third baseman Matt Cerda put the North ahead with an RBI double, then scored on catcher Mike Brenly’s single. DH Justin Bour, who won the league’s home run derby exhibition before the game, followed with a single.
"It’s been a great year, not only personally but as a team," said Bour, a 25th-round pick in 2009 from George Mason who ranks second in the league with 16 home runs and 53 RBIs. "It’s exciting when you see the guys in front of you getting on. You don’t want to be the only one that doesn’t get a hit in that one."
Brenly had his father, former major league catcher and manager Bob, in the stands, something that normally only happens during the major league all-star break. The elder Brenly, now a Cubs broadcaster, also watched a few games when Chicago was playing the Marlins in Miami.
"This is something we’ll never forget," said Mike Brenly, a 36th-round pick in 2008 from Nevada-Las Vegas. “Some people might think a couple days off would be good, but to be here is an honor. On Monday, we’ll be back against each other, but this was fun.”
No pitcher threw more than an inning. Clearwater’s Jon Pettibone, Jarred Cosart, Trevor May and Julio Rodriguez each threw a perfect frame on their home field. Dunedin ace Deck McGuire, a 2010 first-round pick by the Blue Jays, needed 28 pitches for his inning, striking out three with two walks. St. Lucie’s Matt Harvey, a Mets first-rounder in 2010, did not pitch because the Southern Division's first-half title will be on the line in the next few days.
Perhaps the best story of the night was North closer Wes Etheridge, who retired following the 2008 season to become a youth pastor, only to return to action in the independent Golden League last year before signing with the Blue Jays in October. As Dunedin’s closer he has 23 saves and 1.08 ERA, and he came in with the tying run at the plate and two outs in the ninth, the 20th pitcher in the game.
He needed just two pitches to get a game-ending groundout for the save, and said he has been blessed in his return to baseball.
"I was praying about what to do, and I got a phone call from a random guy," said the 26-year-old Etheridge, a Brewers 12th-rounder from UC Irvine in 2007. "He was a buddy, but I hadn't talked to him in a while. He said, 'God doesn’t really want you to be a pastor. I think you’re supposed to play baseball.' God told me to go play baseball, so I did. Everyone has their calling in life, and mine wasn’t to be a teacher, even though I wanted to be."
Greg Auman has covered the University of South Florida's athletic department for the St. Petersburg Times since 2004
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