The extra mile or two an hour on the fastball, the hustle plays that temporarily ignited a desperate crowd, and the collective will of the Wingnuts to save their season were no match for a Winnipeg team that dominated the postseason.
The Wingnuts were swept out of the American Association championship series, falling 8-3 on Friday night at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. It was Wichita’s first trip past the first round of the playoffs, but the first postseason series win in franchise history didn’t produce a second.
Winnipeg swept through both rounds of the playoffs, first against Fargo-Moorhead, which owned the best regular-season record, then against the Wingnuts, who were arguably the league’s best team before three players left for the Mexican League and after they returned.
"They did everything right, they really did," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "In all three games, they did everything right and there were times that we didn’t, and they made us pay for it. If we play the best out of 10, who knows what happens. But they came in and they swept us, and we feel like we’re a really, really good ballclub."
Wichita players stood emotionless on the top step of the dugout after Steve Stanley made the final out, watching a Winnipeg celebration that grew from players throwing gloves in the air to champagne being sprayed before the Goldeyes gathered in front of a banner proclaiming them league champions.
The Wingnuts were finally coaxed from the dugout by general manager Josh Robertson, who touted the team for having excellent chemistry. Many of the crowd of 1,550 stuck around to applaud the efforts of the Wingnuts, and the response from the players to the ovation was bittersweet.
"It’s kind of hard to stay (on the field) in that situation," first baseman C.J. Ziegler said. "It does mean a lot with the fans and everything, but it’s an empty feeling. It’s something to work for, if we do end up coming back here. We know what that feels like and it’s not a good feeling."
The Goldeyes needed a late push to hold off St. Paul for the last spot in the playoffs, but once they got there it was clear that they were nearly perfectly built for the postseason. Winnipeg features three pitchers who can ascend to "ace" status in any given start and had the luxury of using their best one, Matthew Rusch, in Game 3.
Winnipeg also has three ex-major leaguers in the lineup and other players with extensive Triple-A experience. Its defense, though it committed three errors on Friday, is precise in positioning, and the speed of the outfielders can kill rallies with catches in the gaps.
"From what I’ve seen, it’s tough to stop a team that gets those timely hits," Ziegler said. "It’s timely hitting and good pitching, and when things are going right for that team it doesn’t matter, it’s tough to stop them. That’s why we play this game, because when things are going good, it’s unbelievable."
Derek Blacksher, whose adrenaline has served him well at times, started his outing on the mound with his trademark energy. He worked a perfect first inning for the Wingnuts, but fell into a common habit of turning excessive fuel into hittable pitches up in the strike zone. The Goldeyes capitalized on that and poor Wichita defense in the second inning to take a 5-0 lead.
Josh Mazzola started Winnipeg’s tear against Blacksher with a one-out double, starting a string of three straight hits. The final two drove in runs, and after a strikeout, Amos Ramon made it 3-0 with an RBI single. Mike Coles scored after a double, and he got to third on a throwing error by shortstop Ryan Khoury.
A groundball to third baseman Greg Porter suggested the end of a difficult half-inning, but Porter let it roll between his legs and the top of the second was extended. Chris Roberson, who played parts of two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, drove in a pair of unearned runs to put Winnipeg ahead by five.
The Wingnuts’ rally attempt spanned the final eight innings but was ultimately futile. Ziegler started it with a homer to lead off the bottom of the second — it energized the Wingnuts, but the three outs that followed showed they had plenty of work left to do.
Wichita had runners reach scoring position in innings 4, 6, and 7 and got a leadoff single from Mike Conroy in the fifth, but it could only cash in with two runs in the fourth. Three straight hits, two of which came with errors by Winnipeg outfielders that allowed runners to advance, scored two runs and made it 5-3. The Wingnuts never got closer.
The Wingnuts took limited solace in the fact that they maintained effort and energy throughout the series against a team that proved unstoppable in six postseason games. Wichita has been to the playoffs in three of Hooper’s four years as manager, and they missed by one game in 2010.
"We want to win one," Hooper said. "We deserve to win one. We do the right things here. We feel like our time’s coming. If we keep putting ourselves in the situation, getting in the playoffs, it’s going to happen."
|Kendall ss||5||1||1||0||Khoury ss||3||0||0||0|
|Roberson cf||4||0||1||2||Kahaulelio 2b||4||0||0||0|
|de Caster 2b||4||1||0||0||Rodriguez dh||4||1||1||0|
|Canizares dh||4||1||0||0||Ziegler 1b||3||2||2||1|
|Mazzola 1b||5||2||3||0||Porter 3b||4||0||1||0|
|Alen c||4||1||2||4||Peralta rf||5||0||0||0|
|Coles rf||4||1||1||1||Mier c||4||0||1||0|
|Day lf||5||0||1||0||Conroy cf||4||0||1||0|
|Ramon 3b||4||1||2||1||Stanley lf||4||0||1||0|
E—Coles, Day, Khoury 2, Porter. LOB—Winnipeg 9, Wichita 6. DP— Winnipeg 1. 2B— Roberson, Mazzola, Alen, Coles, Rodriguez, Stanley. HR — Ziegler. .
|Blacksher L||5 1/3||9||5||2||1||4|
Umpires — home, Joe Pascucci; first, Art Thigpen; second, Dixon Sturman; third, Tim McCarffrey. T —3:09. A — 1,550.