Hit sends D-days to playoffs

By Matt Becker / Staff Writer

BATAVIAAfter 75 games in 78 days, the Auburn Doubledays saw their season reduced to one simple fact - with a win Thursday night at Batavia, they would secure the division title in the New York-Penn League's Pinckney Division and, consequently, a playoff berth. A loss to the Muckdogs meant the Doubledays would have to await the outcome of the Jamestown-Mahoning Valley game to know their fate.

There was a healthy contingent of Doubledays fans on hand at Dwyer Stadium, but they were presented with little to cheer for until the eighth inning. Maybe it was the pressure of the tight division race with Mahoning Valley. Maybe it was fatigue setting in from the three-month season. Maybe it was the stench of the horse manure that began to roll in from beyond left field in the second inning.

Whatever the cause, the Doubledays did not have it through the first seven innings of Wednesday night's game. The Doubledays persevered, however, and mounted a comeback on the shoulders of Ernie Durazo's three-run double in the eighth inning and a two-out single in the 10th from Paul Richmond to win the game, 6-5. Through seven, the Muckdogs had held the Doubledays' bats to one run on three hits. Auburn was able to take advantage of Batavia manager Ronnie Ortegon's goodwill toward his pitching staff to get back into the game in the eighth.

"We knew their game plan was to pitch a handful of different pitchers tonight," said Doubledays manager Dennis Holmberg. "Unfortunately for them, Whit Bryant was one of those pitchers. We've hit him well the whole year and our guys had some very good at-bats against him." Bryant, the fourth of five pitchers used by the Muckdogs, entered the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead. He faced four batters, all of whom reached base, and was pulled before he could record an out.

"This game was a perfect example of how we played all season," Durazo said. "We don't quit. We want to win. It's as
simple as that." While the philosophy may be simple, the practice of it is anything but. From the Scott Dragicivich fielding error and the misplay of a fly ball by Nom Siriveaw in right field that helped to spark a four-run third inning for the Muckdogs, to the throwing error in the fifth, also by Dragicivich, that led to one more run, the Doubledays looked unprepared to play the Muckdogs. But baseball games do not end after seven innings, and when the Doubledays came to bat in the eighth, they looked to be a totally different club. The Doubledays' quick at-bats and impatient swings of the early innings were replaced with more patient at-bats and greater plate awareness. "We got some good at-bats in the eighth inning," Richmond said. "We worked a walk and got a couple of good bounces for singles, and Ernie came up with the big hit to tie the game. After that, the momentum really swung in our favor."

The game couldn't have started on a more positive note for the Doubledays. Starter Brandon League appeared focused and unflappable as he struck out the side in the first, and four out of the first six batters he faced. But as the sun began to set, so did the light begin to fade on League's performance. Trent Pratt took ball four on a full count to lead off the third. Carlos Rodriguez laid down a perfectly placed bunt two batters later to give the Muckdogs runners on first and second with one out. League looked like he might get out of the jam when he struck out Erick Rivera, but Alex Nunez came through, belting a line drive to right field. Nom Siriveaw appeared to misjudge the ball, which went over his head for a two-run double. Ryan Barthelemy then hit one off his fists into left field to score Nunez. Barthelemy moved to third on two wild pitches, and came in to score when Rob Cafeiro hit a ball to third that Dragicivich could not handle to put Batavia up 4-0.

Auburn put one run up in the fourth, when Brad Hassey roped a hanging curve from Muckdogs starter Lee Gwaltney down the left-field line for a leadoff double and eventually scored on a Justin Owens fielder's choice. The Doubledays squandered a major opportunity in the fifth when Gwaltney hit Siriveaw with an 0-2 pitch to load the bases with two outs. They were unable to capitalize, as Hassey flied out to left.

Batavia tacked on one more in their half of the fifth when a high throw from Dragicivich allowed Nunez to take second. The speedy Nunez came around to score when Chris Roberson laced a single to right center off reliever Marcos Sandoval.

In the eighth, as though struck by lightning, the Doubledays offense was suddenly brought to life. Bryant, whose night was marked by severe control problems, started the inning by hitting Clint Johnston. After walking Siriveaw, he got a ground ball from Hassey that took a wild hop off the grass over shortstop Rodriguez's head, scoring Johnston. Willie Rivera then hit a nubber that barely squeaked past first base to load the bases. Bryant was pulled and Victor Menochal was inserted to pitch out of the jam. Menochal got the first out, when Owens fouled out to short. Ernie Durazo then stepped to the plate and belted the first pitch he saw of the wall in left-center, clearing the bases with a three-run double to tie the game. A fly out and a ground out ended the inning, but not before Bryant endured what had to be the worst outing of his career. His line for the game read: four runs on two hits, one walk, and one hit batsman in zero innings of work. The rally also breathed new life into a once stoic throng of 935, comprised mostly of Doubledays fans. The crowd, which had begun planning on a one-game playoff against Mahoning Valley which would have been played tonight, now saw their team poised to win its first division title since 1998. A 5-4-3 double play in the top of the ninth ended a two-on, one-out threat from the Doubledays. A 6-4-3 double play in the bottom of the ninth ended a one-on, one-out threat from the Muckdogs and sent the game
into extra innings.

Willie Rivera led off the tenth with a single to center. Justin Owens then stepped up and did the unthinkable - he set down a bunt right in front of home plate to advance Rivera to second. "I've hit well over the season, but I haven't been hitting well lately," Owens said. "We needed a runner in scoring position, so when Dennis told me to lay down the bunt, I did." A.J. Porfirio was sent in to pinch-hit for Rich Jimenez and struck out, leaving the game in Richmond's hands. Richmond broke his bat on a bloop to left field to score the go-ahead, and eventually game-winning, run. "I didn't hit it that hard," Richmond said. "But if I break my bat and get a hit like that every time, I'll break every bat I've got." A gem of a defensive play by Johnston began the ninth as he nabbed a ball hit down the right-field line and threw it to an alert Jordan DeJong, who came off the mound to cover first base. DeJong solidified the comeback by striking out Cafeiro to record the final out of the game. Holmberg summed up the effort with five simple words. "Heart, character, determination, pride and unselfishness. Everyone contributed," he said. "Our bullpen came in and did exactly what we needed them to do. They shut down the other team's offense and gave us a chance to win."

The win also marked another milestone for Holmberg. It was his 900th career victory as a manager in the NY-P League. "I said a couple of weeks ago when I was only about 10 games away from this that I wanted to get number 900 with this team," he said. "And I can't imagine a better way in which to get it."

www.auburnpub.com – 6 September 2002

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