The River City Rascals advanced to the Frontier League Championship Series for the third consecutive year with a 3-2 victory Saturday night at Rent One Park against the rival Southern Illinois Miners.
The narrow win marks the second straight year the Rascals knocked out the Miners in the divisional round and the quest to win the second Frontier League Championship in Rascals history begins Tuesday night in Evansville, Indiana, against the Otters.
Going into the night, the Rascals were ahead in the series 2-1 and the pitching matchup was Rascals southpaw Dan Ludwig and Miners Western Division All-Star Jarett Miller.
Both pitchers had stellar 2016 campaigns but Ludwig out dueled the Miners pitching staff and turned in six innings of two run baseball before leaving in line with his team out in front 3-2.
Ludwig faced the minimum through three innings and his offense broke the scoreless tie and gave him the lead in the fourth inning.
With two outs, Kyle Gaedele smoked a ball off the leg of Miners starter Jarett Miller and after being checked on by the training staff, Miller stayed in the game and fell behind 3-0 on Jason Merjano before battling back and getting it to a full count. After fouling off a pitch to stay alive, Merjano drove a ball over the right-center field wall to notch his second home run of the postseason and give his team a 2-0 lead.
“That home run was huge tonight but like I always say, the guys in front of me had great at-bats to make that possible,” Merjano said.
The Rascals reached two more times in the inning to chase Miller out of the game, who started on short rest, and Miners reliever Brooks Trujillo stranded them to limit the damage to the home run.
However, the Miners would respond in the home half of the inning sending seven players to the plate which resulted in a pair of runs to the game up at two.
The Western Division Champion drew a pair of walks and recorded a single off of Ludwig to load the bases with one out and then shortstop Craig Massey was hit in the helmet to bring home the Miners first run.
One batter later, Steve Marino singled to tie the game up at two and instead of the Miners having bases loaded still with one out, Craig Massey was tagged out in between second and third base so the Miners had just one out to work with and runners were at the corners.
Ludwig stranded them right there and combined with Nick Kennedy, Shane Street and Zac Treece to keep the Miners off the scoreboard the rest of the night despite three runners getting into scoring position in the final three innings.
In the fifth, the Rascals scored what would go on to be the winning run off of a walk from Trujillo and a throwing error trying to pick Morales off that got him to third base. Ludy made him pay with a RBI single and then after a Silver single, the Miners went to the bullpen again and they kept the Rascals to just two hits the rest of the night.
“With a runner on third and the infield in, I was just trying to get a pitch up in the zone that I could get up off the ground and luckily I got a slider up that I was able to put in the outfield,” Ludy said about his game winning RBI single.
The Miners offense had plenty of chances to tie the game at three and their first was in the seventh inning when Brandon Cummins tripled into the right-center gap with a runner on first and no outs. The runner on first at the time the triple was hit was Kurt Wertz Jr. and after he scored, the Rascals appealed to second base and the umpires ruled that Wertz Jr. never hit the bag therefore he was out.
However, Cummins was still on third with less than two outs and Josh Silver came up with a huge defensive play on a ground ball to him that he threw home and Cummins was retired for out number two. While Rascals seventh year Manager Steve Brook was away from the team dealing with a family emergency, hitting coach Josh Ludy was making the calls and he went to right-hander Shane Street to record the final out of the inning via a strikeout to Aaron Gates.
The Miners next two chances came against Rascals closer Zac Treece in the final two innings as he came on for a six out save. Treece worked around a leadoff double from Shane Kennedy in the eighth and a one out triple in the ninth to record the save in his first playoff appearance of the year.
“I was super excited and ready when I got the call to come out of the bullpen tonight,” Treece said. ”Tonight was a huge, I had a couple extra base hits against me but I stayed within myself, didn’t let the game get too big and managed to get out of it to help my team get the win.”
In the save, Treece struck out two and the win went to Ludwig who allowed just two runs on four hits and struck out four.
The Championship Series will begin Tuesday night in Evansville, Indiana, as the Rascals look to win their second Frontier League Championship under Steve Brook (2010) and second in Rascals history.
“This is awesome, especially today with Brook being gone and having to run the manager side of it also. I told Brook when I came back that I came back to win a ring and now we have the chance to go do that and we are looking forward to it,” Ludy said.