On paper, they were a lesser team accused of backing into the playoffs. Nearly written off and dismissed as underdogs, the Vancouver Canadians had a different attitude. It was one that believed a regular season record means nothing, especially not during the third and final game of a best-of-three championship series.
On Sunday, the Cs trounced the visiting Tri-City Dust Devils 9-2 to silence the doubters and earn the franchise its first Northwest League championship since it entered the Single A division in 2000.
Put up or shut up, said a grinning Jesse Hernandez, his white home kit soaked in champagne and juice, a sopping prize for his tremendous six innings on the mound.
At this point, the biggest game Ive ever thrown in, said the 22-year-old right-handed pitcher from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We batted all year for that moment. Everyone of those guys works their butts off day in and day out to get a ring. It paid off.
Vancouver came out strong to earn 24 wins against 14 losses in the first half of the shortened playing season in the Single A Northwest League. But the affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays won only 15 more times to finish the regular season just two games above .500 for a 39-37 record.
Although critics doubted they were good enough or even deserving, their record put them through to the playoffs.
Nonetheless, said Cs manager Rich Miller, You always feel real confident. He showed the athletes his 1986 World Series ring from his days with the New York Mets Single A club.
I hope it helped.
After winning the opening game of the series 6-3 at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, Wash., the Cs dropped the second game 5-3 at home. With bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, a controversial decision at first base ended the night to the disappointed outcry of spectators. Replays showed the call was wrong.
That set the stage Sunday for a winner-take-all bout against the Dust Devils (the Colorado Rockies Single A team affiliate) said to have vastly superior numbers to the Vancouver Canadians, according to a Washington newspaper. Tri-City ranks higher in almost every major statistical categoryboth at the plate and on the moundwhile Vancouver is in the bottom half of the league in everything but strikeouts on offense (the Cs were third with 633 whiffs).
The Tri-City Herald on Friday before the series got underway rhetorically poked at the wound, asking, Why even play the game?
Dont underestimate confidence, warned Tri-City club players. The headline was tacked up in the Canadians locker room, a reminder that baseball isnt played on paper.
In front of a home crowd of 2,848 on a spectacular afternoon at Scotia Bank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, the Cs made that point loud and clear.
As his players paraded the trophy around the ball diamond, Vancouver fans cheered and Bruce Springsteens Glory Days played over the loud-speakers, the Cs Miller noted the mental advantage of self-belief. You dont want to say, Oh, Jeeze, I dont know
The Dust Devils werent going to walk away with two easy wins despite what the stats suggested.
Thats a real good ball club and everyone says that, said Miller. They had the best pitching in the league, the best defense in the league and [Saturday] night we got a bunch of hits off their starter, we just didnt get a lot of runs and today, we stepped up big, big time.
Much of the credit goes to Hernandez, the pitcher who put in a tremendous game starting on the mound for the Cs. In the opening three innings, he struck out six batters and retired all nine who stepped to the plate. In the top of the fourth, the Dust Devils opened scoring when Hernandez allowed a single followed by a double that brought in the runner on first for a 1-0 lead.
He gave up three hits, walked one and allowed only one run earned in six innings, a nights work that brought high praise from the Cs pitching coach Jim Czajkowski.
He stepped up his game. His fastball had a little more crispness to it tonight and his off-speed pitch changeup really kept these guys off him, he said. He came out after the sixth and I figured, hes done his part. Hes tiring. Pitch count was up and we have a strong bullpen and they took us home.
Bryan Longpre pitched two innings and Drew Permison closed the game.
The Cs answered in the bottom of the fourth inning with a trio of runs then more than doubled their lead in the seventh, including a home run off the bat of second baseman Jon Berti. Designated hitter Balbino Fuenmayor stroked a two-run triple for insurance.
The Canadians topped their opponents by seven runs, enough to put the C in championship. And confidence.