Throughout a long and at times challenging season, Milwaukee Bear Claws manager Poss Horton has preached one consistent message to his players: relax.
“This ain’t brain surgery and it ain’t war,” said Horton. “You can’t go through the season with your teeth gritted. You can’t let yourself get too up or too down based on what’s happening today or this week.”
Horton’s take-it-easy philosophy has served the Bear Claws well this year. It helped them charge out to an early lead in the Western division. It helped them persevere through a mid-season slump and fend off a late charge by the California Sharks. And now, it has helped them claim the inaugural Patriot League championship, withstanding a fierce challenge by the Knoxville Smokies and triumphing in Game 6 by a 5-2 margin.
“Poss is the one who got us here,” said Milwaukee SS Red Petitt, dripping wet after his teammates doused him with champagne. “He didn’t let us get in our head about losing streaks, or panic about injuries, or anything. He kept us steady and kept us together. Poss is the man!”
A sellout crowd greeted the Bear Claws at High Life Field for today’s Game 6. The Bear Claws took two of three games in Knoxville to claim a 3-2 lead in the series and push the Smokies to the brink of elimination. The Milwaukee fans were vocal in support of their heroes, filling the park with a buzzing energy from the first pitch.
Milwaukee’s Game 6 starter, Lou Mallory, was eager to atone for his struggles in the series opener, when he dropped a 6-3 decision to Knoxville. Similarly, Knoxville righty Jack Jacques was looking to rebound after the loss he took in Game 2. Both starters were in much stronger form today.
“Lou really brought his A game today,” said Horton. “I think he felt like he had something to prove. But [Jacques] was dealing, too. Another pitcher’s duel.”
The Smokies got on the board first, taking a 1-0 lead on doubles by 1B Eddie Battin and C Prince Carlo. But the Bear Claws tied it up in the 3rd on an RBI double by 1B Felipe Mateo, as the crowd roared with delight.
After the initial exchange of runs, both pitchers clamped down and began trading zeroes, as the cheering in the stands began to take on a bit of a nervous edge as Jacques closed off repeated Milwaukee threats.
“We were getting guys on base, but we weren’t getting them in,” said Bear Claws 2B Richard Iddings. “The longer it went on, the more we started to wonder what it was going to take to break this guy.”
The anxiety levels among the Milwaukee faithful only increased after the Smokies manufactured a run to take the lead in the top of the 7th. Battin opened the inning with a single, and then a pair of groundouts moved him over to third. LF Track Johnson then lifted a weak pop-up that dropped between Mateo and RF Wally Trumbauer, plating Battin and making it 2-1.
“That’s how [the Smokies have] done it all year,” said Iddings. “They don’t beat your brains in with homers; they string together hits and grind out runs and win that way. We knew we had to seize the momentum back in a hurry.”
The Bear Claws did that and more in a thrilling bottom of the 7th. With one out, Petitt hit a seemingly routine groundball to second. Smokies 2B Jeremiah Campo took a step back, fielded the ball, and threw to first… only to see Petitt beat it out with blazing speed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy motor like Red did there,” said Horton. “It was a straight-up easy grounder, and Red flat outraced it. Talk about motivation!”
Iddings then smashed a ball through the left side of the infield for another single, with Petitt scooting to second. That brought up Mateo, Milwaukee’s most dangerous hitter. Jacques (0-2) fell behind 2-0, then fired a fastball low in the zone. Mateo dug the ball out and dropped it down the right-field line for a double, allowing Petitt to race home with the tying run.
“He put the pitch in my happy zone,” said Mateo, who was named Patriot Series MVP after a performance in which he batted .571 and drove in nine runs. “I didn’t try to do too much with it, just find the grass.”
With the go-ahead run on third, Knoxville drew the infield in against Bear Claws 3B Ikaru Suzuki. The Milwaukee third sacker slapped a three-hopper to short, and Knoxville SS Armand Moriarty fired home, but not in time to keep Iddings from scoring the go-ahead run on a gorgeous hook slide as the crowd shouted its approval.
Bear Claws LF Arthur Mealey chased Jacques with another double that scored a pair of runs, and gave Milwaukee some insurance.
Mallory (1-1) stayed in through the 8th, allowing only the two runs on eight hits. Horton let him take the field to start the 9th before pulling him, so that Mallory could bask in the crowd’s adulation as he finished his work.
“After everything Lou’s done for us this year, he deserved a real nice ovation,” said Horton.
Closer Oscar Buenaventura finished the job with a 1-2-3 9th, recording his first save of the series. Johnson recorded the final out of the game with a grounder to first. Mateo plucked the ball, stomped on the bag, and then threw his glove and the ball in the air before joining his teammates in a dogpile in front of the mound.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s really over and we won,” said Mateo, wiping away a tear, or possibly a stray drop of champagne. “I just feel so happy all over the place.”
The loss was a bitter pill for Smokies manager Snuff Wallace, who boldly predicted that his team would sweep the series. Wallace was a bit subdued in his postgame press conference, but he remained defiant. “Well, I gotta congratulate those guys,” said Wallace. “They played a hell of a series and a hell of a season, and they’re deserving winners. But they better not rest on their laurels. ‘Cause the road to our championship starts right here and right now. I’m sure our front office is already working on the deals that will get us over the top. Y’all better get used to me, ‘cause I’m gonna be right back here next year, only I’m gonna be clutching a big shiny trophy when I do.”
The Bear Claws now look forward to an offseason full of sausage and beer. The Smokies will spend the winter hunting and fishing in their namesake mountains. That and making trades. Lots and lots of trades. So many trades.
9/29/2015, KNX15-MIL15, High Life Stadium 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E LOB DP 2015 Smokies 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 8 0 7 0 2015 Bear Claws 0 0 1 0 0 0 4 0 x 5 11 0 10 0 Smokies AB R H BI AVG Bear Claws AB R H BI AVG Blair cf 4 0 1 0 .364 Petitt ss 4 1 2 0 .269 Campo 2b 4 0 0 0 .130 Iddings 2b 5 2 2 0 .217 Bryant dh 3 0 0 0 .136 Mateo 1b 4 1 3 2 .571 Campo rf 4 0 2 0 .364 Suzuki 3b 4 1 0 1 .280 Moriarty ss 4 0 1 0 .048 Mealey lf 4 0 1 2 .304 Battin 1b 4 2 2 0 .190 Raine dh 3 0 2 0 .619 Aceuedo 3b 4 0 0 0 .167 Trumbauer rf 3 0 0 0 .095 Carlo c 2 0 1 1 .235 McGuigan c 4 0 1 0 .286 Gomez ph 1 0 0 0 .000 Maxwell cf 4 0 0 0 .261 Bossard c 1 0 0 0 .000 35 5 11 5 Johnson lf 4 0 1 1 .300 35 2 8 2 Smokies INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA Jacques L 0-2 6.1 10 5 5 2 1 90 51 5.65 Tile 0.2 1 0 0 1 2 13 8 4.91 Lighty 1.0 0 0 0 0 0 8 7 0.00 8.0 11 5 5 3 3 111 66 Bear Claws INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA Mallory W 1-1 8.0 8 2 2 1 2 107 77 4.50 Buenaventura S 1 1.0 0 0 0 0 1 13 10 0.00 9.0 8 2 2 1 3 120 87 KNX: Gomez batted for Carlo in the 7th Bossard inserted at c in the 7th 2B-Battin(1), Carlo(2), Mateo 2(2), Mealey(2). RBI-Carlo(1), Johnson(1), Mateo 2(9), Suzuki(3), Mealey 2(5). SB-Campo(1), Iddings(2). CS-Trumbauer. K-Blair, Aceuedo, Bossard, Iddings, Trumbauer, Maxwell. BB-Bryant, Petitt, Mateo, Raine. HBP-Trumbauer. HB-Jacques. GWRBI: Suzuki Temperature: 37, Sky: cloudy, Wind: right to left at 15 MPH.