OKLAHOMA CITY–The return of the Triple-A Championship was a success on and off the field.
Pacific Coast League champion Tucson defeated International League champ Toledo 5-2 in the Bricktown Showdown, in a game broadcast nationally on ESPN.
But probably more importantly, the game, which was cancelled five years ago because of financial problems and dwindling attendance, drew 12,572 fans, a near sellout to Oklahoma City’s Bricktown Ballpark.
“This was a great idea that was very well executed,” PCL president Branch Rickey proudly proclaimed.
The players, who split a small but welcome playoff purse, often seemed as excited by the game as the fans. And while the onfield celebration by Tucson was somewhat subdued compared to its PCL counterpart, it was nevertheless both sincere and significant.
The revised Triple-A championship format, The Bricktown Showdown, was a winner-take-all single game played in the Oklahoma RedHawks’ stylish downtown stadium. On paper, it appeared to be a classic battle of big bats versus power pitching but, as often is the case, what happened on the playing field didn’t exactly conform to the paper projections.
Toledo consistently played long ball, smashing eight home runs in the final two games of the IL championship series to defeat the Rochester Red Wings and claim its second straight Governor’s Cup. After falling behind two games to one in the series, Toledo outscored Rochester 16-1 in final two games. By contrast Tucson, which swept the Round Rock Express to win its first Pacific Coast League title since 1993, scored only 15 runs in the entire series.
Tucson, playing in a hitter’s park, was the only PCL team in the league to give up fewer than 100 home runs. Toledo had three of the IL’s top four home run hitters while leading the league in long balls. The trend had continued in postseason as Tucson hit just two home runs in its seven-game PCL playoff run. Toledo hit four in its final game alone.
The Toledo lineup was so loaded with heavy hitters that Governor’s Cup hitting star Mike Hessman, who smashed five home runs in the playoffs, was slotted sixth in the batting order by manager Larry Parrish.
Tucson pitching coach Mike Parrott was very aware of Toledo’s proven power production but he was also confident in the arms he could send out against the heavy hitters. “They’ve got some guys capable of hitting the ball out of any park in any league,” he said in the dugout before the game. “But we’ve got pitchers who have been successful in preventing that all season. It’s just a matter of who’s hotter right now.”
The Tucson pitchers, limiting Toledo to a single run and only a half dozen hits through the first eight innings, clearly blazed brighter. And, most importantly, the Tucson mound staff kept Toledo hitters in the ballpark, as the only Mud Hens extra base hits were a couple of doubles, the second coming with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Micah Owings, who went undefeated in 10 PCL decisions while compiling a combined 16-2 minor league record for the season, burned through the power-packed Toledo lineup with ease to get the victory. He struck out six, three coming as the final outs of innings, while allowing a single run, ultimately leaving after five frames as his pitch count hit 100. Minor control problems, which led to four walks, accelerated the pitch count but Toledo could only manage four singles and a double off Owings.
Toledo, after losing scheduled starter and IL strikeout leader Chad Durbin to a big league callup, sent Eulogio De La Cruz to the hill. He made only one regular season start for Toledo after appearing in 38 games for the Double-A Erie Seawolves The 22-year old De La Cruz had mixed results in the IL playoffs, picking up a win in the semifinals while striking out 11 in seven innings but being tagged for a loss in the championship series after giving up five runs in four innings.
De La Cruz zipped a 95 mph fastball across the plate for a strike to open the game. Tucson centerfielder Donnie Sadler then launched the second pitch into the right-center gap and sped around the bases for a triple to give Tucson its first scoring opportunity of the game. Scott Hairston’s sacrifice fly to center scored Sadler. And that was it until the fourth when Ryan Raburn doubled down the third base line before Maxin St. Pierre’s single up the middle scored him to tie the game.
Tucson almost padded its 1-0 lead in the third, courtesy of a Hairston double following a two-out single from Jon Weber. But Weber was thrown out at plate on shortstop Brent Dlugach’s relay throw from shallow left field. Hairston’s two hits won him the game MVP award, which he was happy to accept while saying he really didn’t deserve it.
“Everyone on this team had a part in winning the game and that’s how we’ve played all year,” he explained. “It’s an honor to get the award but I feel like I’m accepting for my teammates, too, because they deserve it just as much as I do.”
The game’s unlikely home run hero, Tucson catcher Juan Brito, didn’t get an award but he did outhomer the entire Toledo team. Brito who hit eight home runs during the regular season and none during the PCL playoffs, lined a shot into the left-field bleachers in the fifth inning to allow Tucson to retake the lead after Toledo got on the scoreboard.
“I wasn’t trying to hit a home run because that’s really not my game,” Brito said. “But it just happened and the fact it put us back ahead was great. I was just happy to be able to do my part to help the team.”
Tucson, using four singles and two Toledo errors, put the game away in the ninth, scoring three times to make it 5-1. Toledo attempted a bottom of the ninth rally but could only come up with a single run via David Espinosa’s RBI double.