Tuesday, March 24, 2009

San Jose = Cinderella?

It's an age-old story, and one with even more meaning this time of year, with the NCAA tourney grabbing headlines. After a miserable start, the Scorpions are now window shopping for glass slippers and are one step away from the title.

It's been a long haul for the squad, through the winding path of all wild card teams with big dreams. This was a team that almost punted after losing its first ten games of the season, and going 13-14 in April. Rumors had team star Carlos Pena on the trade blocks, but instead management saw opportunity despite the sluggish start to the year, and managed to trade for Mark DeRosa and Brandon Webb in order to make a stretch run. Webb went 7-2 after the trade, and carried the team to the playoffs while helping to save a somewhat beleaguered bullpen.

In the WC round, the Scorpions matched up against a tough Meridian squad with a similar regular season record. In a seesaw game 1, Ryan Doumit came on against Meridian closer Matt Capps with San Jose down a run 6-5 and down to their last out with a man on base. Doumit came through in the clutch with a 2-run jack that sent the home fans into a frenzy. Game 2 saw Doumit continue his torrid regular season (1.053 OPS) by going 3 for 3 and DeRosa go 3 for 4 with 3 RBI to lead San Jose to a 2-0 series edge with a 6-3 win. After a Game 3 loss on the road where Vlad Guerrero smashed 2 homers for the Trojans, Roger "The Pincushion" Clemens tossed a complete game shutout and Josh Bard hit a PH 3-run homer to close out the series and advance San Jose to the Silver LDS round.

In the LDS, San Jose squared off against a Montreal squad that finished a scant 1 game behind the Scorpions in the regular season. The Sunsets took game 1 in spectacular fashion, scoring 3 runs to erase a 5-3 deficit in the top of the 9th inning. Moises Alou went 2 for 3 with a HR and 3 RBI to lead the way, and the heretofore untouchable Manny Delcarmen took the loss. Game 2 saw the home team mount a furious rally in the bottom of the 9th, down 4-1, but we came up just short for a 4-3 final. Derek Lowe notched the “W” with 7 strong innings of work.

The Scorpions then donned their road jerseys and made the trek to Montreal to try stop the Sunset steamroller. Game 3 featured a pitcher’s duel with Joe Blanton and Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka going toe to toe with neither starter giving an inch. In the top of the 9th, San Jose managed to eke out a run off the Montreal bullpen as pinch hitter Jayson Werth singled home the only score of the ballgame. Blanton lasted 8 innings and gave up just 5 hits and no walks. Delcarmen was back in form to close Montreal out in the 9th. In Game 4, the San Jose bats came to life in the 4th inning, putting up 6 runs against Sunsets starter Carlos Zambrano, and the team held on for a 7-3 victory. Webb went the distance in the win, and just like that, the series was even at two games apiece. In Game 5, the Sunsets took a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the 7th and held on for a 6-2 win, with Lowe once again providing 7 strong innings of work. DH Jonny Gomes drove in 3 runs on 2 hits to help the Montreal cause.

With a 3-2 lead in games, the series went back to San Jose and the tension was palpable. In games 3 & 4 in Montreal, San Jose sparkplug Reggie Willits had been beaned in the 1st inning in each game and knocked out each time, and the Scorpions crowd was calling for retaliation on their home turf. That set the stage for an ugly game in every sense of the word. Sunset had struck first blood, and San Jose was down 5-1 in the 5th inning when Country Joe Blanton came high and tight to Macier Izturis, who couldn’t avoid the 91-mph heater and went down hard after it caught him on the earflap. The dugouts exchanged angry words and but Blanton managed to settle down and retire the side. In the bottom half of the inning, Chris Snyder was at the plate for San Jose with two men on when Chad Billingsley cut loose a fastball that hit Snyder square in the back. Both dugouts emptied, but after a huddle the umpiring crew determined that there could be no intent on Billingsley’s part to hit Snyder and therefore load the bases. A couple of singles cut the lead to 5-4 and chased Billingsley from the game, accompanied by catcalls from the partisan crowd. In the 6th inning, the Scorpions rallied for 4 runs on a gland slam by Carlos Pena to grab a 8-5 lead. San Jose would add 2 more in the 7th for a seemingly commanding 5-run margin at 10-5, but the bullpen almost gave the game away in the 9th as Montreal pushed 4 runs across the board before Delcarmen came in to put out the flames, and San Jose hung on for a 10-9 win to force a game 7.

After the huge buildup, Game 7 turned into a laugher quickly as the home team scored almost at will against Dice K, putting up 9 runs in the 1st 4 innings of play. Pena, completely quiet in the series until his clout in Game 6, confirmed that he had found his power stroke by sending two more balls over the wall, good for 4 RBI on the day. Webb absolutely dominated from the mound, tossing a complete game shutout on 125 pitches, striking out 10 in the process & giving up just 4 hits & a walk, and San Jose moved on to the LCS with a convincing 12-0 win.

In the LCS, San Jose was matched up against a Duluth-Superior squad that it had dominated during the regular season, winning all 7 games. But in the LCS, fond San Jose memories of the season sweep were quickly erased as the Dukes took the 1st two in San Jose. Albert Pujols and Erik Bedard starred for D-S in Game 1, a 6-2 win, and in Game 2 the Dukes scratched out a 3-2 win behind 3 innings and 6 Ks from their 2-headed bullpen monster of Joe Nathan and Mariano Rivera.

Once again, the Scorpions needed some magic on the road, and Game 3 did not disappoint as WC hero Doumit and LDS hero Webb contributed epic performances. Doumit set the tone with a Grand Slam in the 1st, and he went on to pound the Dukes pitching for 3 hits, 2 dingers, and a jaw-dropping 7 RBI. Webb once again went the full distance, this time needing just 120 pitches, giving up 1 earned run and 7 hits on the day against 7 Ks. Game 4 was a back-and-forth battle that went to extra innings. In the 10th, pinch hitter Josh Hamilton hit an RBI single with the bases jammed that held up. Ryan Franklin got the win with 3 scoreless relief innings, and the series was tied at 2 games each. Game 5 was over quickly, as the Scorpions erupted for 5 runs in the 3rd and cruised to an easy 14-3 win. Mark Ellis was 3 for 3 with a Grand Slam and 5 RBI to lead the way for San Jose, and Blanton needed just 112 pitches to nail down the victory in a complete game effort.

Game 6 was close throughout, and after Webb went 7+ strong innings, the San Jose bullpen came on to preserve a 5-3 win. Ellis and Hamilton chipped in 2 RBI each to lead the way for the home team, and the San Jose fans held a raucous postgame celebration on the field with their team as they completed the comeback series victory and claimed the Silver League crown. Now we await the outcome of the Gold League to see if the glass slipper might actually fit...

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