Championship Series Game Three or The Boys are Back in Town

Strap in for the ride that lies ahead, because the Midwest League championship series has boiled down to a best-of-three set, and the last team standing will be crowned champion at Parkview Field either Sunday or Monday. After two games at Wisconsin’s Fox Cities Stadium, the TinCaps and Timber Rattlers return to Fort Wayne with the series tied, 1-1.

The first two games provided several nail-biting moments, whether it was a wild pitch that allowed the Timber Rattlers to walk away a winner in game one, despite having collected just four hits. The TinCaps had a few late opportunities to lay down a sacrifice bunt in game one, but couldn’t seize the opportunity. In one instance Austin Hedges had to swing away after missing on a few bunt attempts, and nearly grounded into a triple play.

In game two of the series, Colin Rea kept each fan in attendance on the edge of his or her seat, as he threw a career-high seven innings and allowed two hits. Johnny Barbato and Matt Stites each pitched one inning, helping the TinCaps hang on for a 5-1 win, bolstered by home runs from Lee Orr and Duanel Jones. Even in that game, until the ninth when Jones’ home run made it 5-1, there was a lingering sense that something might happen, and that the game might turn. Perhaps that’s the nervous side of me, that is always keeping an eye out for something else to happen. The internal worry, maybe. Growing up a Mets fan and watching Armando Benitez blow save after save has apparently engrained that outlook on me.

Watching Matt Stites has done a good deal to relieve that worry, however. He’s been a perfect three-for-three in save opportunities this postseason, and he even worked a 1-2-3 ninth on Thursday, despite it not being a save situation with the TinCaps leading by four. On Friday, he was honored by Baseball America for his stellar season, being named the Low-A All-Star relief pitcher of the year:

“We looked beyond the saves total in selecting Stites as our low Class A reliever of the year,” said Matt Eddy, Associate Editor at Baseball America. “His 60-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.58 WHIP speak volumes about his proficiency in close games.”

There has been no one better in the league this year when a game is on the line. This just puts it into award form for Stites, who is headed to the Arizona Fall League once the Midwest League season is finished. Baseball America also honored Fort Wayne’s first-year manager, Jose Valentin, as the Low-A Manager of the Year:

“We honored Valentin as the Low Class A manager of the year because he guided the TinCaps to the playoffs and ultimately the Midwest League finals with one of the youngest pitching staffs in the league. But, more importantly, from our perspective he did so with a team chock full of prospects, such as Austin Hedges, Jace Peterson and Joe Ross,” Eddy added.

Not to mention, he oversaw the first-ever batting champion (Yeison Asencio, .323) in the 20-year history of the franchise and his team had four representatives at the All-Star game in June, plus another two on the post-season All-Star team.

That’s the good news. Now for the not so good news…

During the first inning of Thursday’s game at Wisconsin, TinCaps CF Travis Jankowski suffered a fractured rib when he was hit by a pitch leading off the game. He stayed in to run the bases through the top of the first, but came out in the bottom of the inning and was replaced by Mike Gallic. When Jankowski was at second base, having advanced on a wild pitch, Valentin walked about ten feet past third base as if he wanted to check in on Jankowski, but the outfielder waved away his skipper, trying to play through the pain. Jankowski was placed on the disabled list today, and has been replaced by infielder Connor Powers, who had been on the disabled list since late August.

This comes as a blow to the TinCaps who now will have to work with a reconfigured lineup. Ever since Jankowski joined the team at the end of June, he had hit leadoff nearly every game. We’ll likely see Jace Peterson return to the top of the lineup, and perhaps Tyler Stubblefield will hit second. The three,four and five spots will be interesting to see. Travis Whitmore or Yeison Asencio could hit third, with whoever ends up not hitting third, hitting fourth. Lee Orr could hit cleanup or in the number five spot. Asencio has been hitting third lately in an attempt by Jose Valentin to score a run within the first three batters coming to the plate. The theory is that if either Jankowski or Peterson were to reach base and steal second, Asencio could drive them home. While Asencio has not hit much in the playoffs, Orr has hitting four home runs in seven games.

A final note on Jankowski is about his 23-game hitting streak. It will come to an end now that his season is over, but it will be in the TinCaps record books as the longest in the history of the team. Since 2009, no TinCaps player has hit in more than 18 consecutive games. 2011 Midwest League MVP Rymer Liriano did it last year, and Blake Tekotte, a member of the 2009 Midwest League Championship team, also hit in 18 straight games. While Jankowski’s streak will officially end at 17 games (the Midwest League does not count streaks that carry into the postseason), we will continue to see it as a 23-game streak.

Tonight’s game will get underway at 7:05 at Parkview Field, and the city is buzzing with civic pride:

Fort Wayne’s Martin Luther King bridge is illuminated in green and red to support the TinCaps.

Needless to say, folks are excited. Frank Garces, making his second postseason start, gets the ball for Fort Wayne. He pitched in game one of the series against Lake County, getting a no-decision in a 4-3 Fort Wayne win. Wisconsin will go with David Goforth, who threw a complete-game shutout in his lone playoff appearance to-date.

The series has not featured much offense so far, especially on Wisconsin’s side with the Timber Rattlers collecting just six hits in two games. Fort Wayne’s Jace Peterson and Yeison Asencio are a combined 1-15. Will pitching continue to reign supreme, or will the offenses come to life? The only way to know is to either be at the game or tune in if you’re out of town.

MUSICAL GUEST

Jimi Hendrix…take it away!

If you’d like to get in touch, you can reach me at Couzens@TinCaps.com or on Twitter @MikeCouzens.

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