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CLINTON — Minor league games are a dime a dozen. It’s doubtful there’s many, if any, these players and coaches will recall years from now.
But maybe this one’s the exception. Yeah, this one’s the exception.
Especially if you’re Ricky Eusebio and the other members of the Clinton LumberKings. Eusebio lined a clean double into the gap in left-center field with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning to send the L-Kings to the Midwest League Championship Series via a 1-0 Game 3 win over the Cedar Rapids Kernels on Monday night at Ashford University Field.
A bitter end for the Kernels, who won Game 1 over the weekend, but couldn’t close out the Western Division championship. Cedar Rapids’ title drought extends another year, its last championship in 1994.
The Kernels lost in a deciding Game 5 of last year’s championship series to West Michigan, which remains alive in the Eastern Division finals. The Whitecaps and Great Lakes play a winner-take-all Game 3 Tuesday night.
Clinton hasn’t won a Midwest League championship since 1991.
“It’s a game to remember,” said Kernels shortstop Nelson Molina. “We were so close to where we wanted to be, getting that ring. But I can say I’m really proud of my team, proud of myself, proud of my manager. We did our job. Those 11 innings, we played really hard. We didn’t give away anything. Every one of us gave more than 100 percent. The luck wasn’t with us tonight, but that’s how baseball is.”
Logan Taylor led off the Clinton 11th with a sharp single to right field against losing relief pitcher Anthony McIver. After a flyout, Rafael Fernandez singled through the left side to put runners at first and second.
James Alfonso fouled out to third, bringing up Eusebio, who smacked a 2-2 pitch into the gap to win it. LumberKings players rushed out of their dugout and bullpen and celebrated together along the edge of the infield and into the outfield.
“Our guys battled and competed,” Kernels Manager Jake Mauer said. “We didn’t have any Baseball America top 10 prospects or anything. But I think they all got better, and they all learned something. It’s unfortunate it came down to a one-run game in 11 innings. We had opportunities, they had opportunities. They’d pitch out of jams, we’d pitch out of jams. Defense was good both ways ... It was just a good baseball game.”
Clinton starting pitcher Nick Neidert retired the first 11 Kernels, with Luis Arraez breaking up his opening string with a two-out single in the fourth. Travis Blankenhorn led off the fifth with a broken-bat blooper the other way down the left-field line, giving Cedar Rapids its first good scoring opportunity.
Make that great opportunity, as he was wild pitched to third base with none out.
Clinton played its infield in, which was the prudent move, as J.J. Fernandez hit a sharp grounder to the right of shortstop Rayder Ascanio that he snagged and threw to first for the out. Blankenhorn held on the play, though it would have been interesting to see if he’d have scored had he run on contact.
With the infield remaining in, Nelson Molina hit a scorcher through the box that the ever-present Ascanio moved to his left and grabbed. Neidert then struck out Jaylin Davis looking to miraculously escape without a run scored.
“It’s not like we were not trying to get any runs,” said Kernels first baseman Zander Wiel. “Our pitchers pitched their butts off all night. Both teams were pretty much held down. Just a stalemate the whole time. We definitely left it all out there. We can’t hang our heads about anything. It definitely sucks to lose in this way, a walk-off and stuff like that. But I’m proud of everybody in here. It’s been great all year. Just a great experience.”
Neidert allowed just three baserunners in seven innings, striking out nine. Sean Poppen, making his playoff debut, came through big time in the biggest start of his young professional career, allowing only three hits and striking out three in five innings.
Clinton nearly broke through in the seventh, with reliever Michael Cederoth striking out leadoff man Chris Mariscal with guys on second and third and two away. The Kernels got a leadoff single in the ninth from Casey Scoggins and loaded the bases with two away, but Fernandez flied to center to end that threat.
Alex Jackson, the parent Seattle Mariners’ top draft pick in 2014, doubled the other way to right field against C.R.’s Tom Hackimer leading off the bottom of the ninth. He was sacrifice bunted to third by Rafael Fernandez.
That forced the Kernels to bring their infield up. James Alfonso broke his bat on a slow grounder to first that Wiel fielded and threw to second baseman Arraez covering at first for the second out.
Jackson held at third. Hackimer threw a pitch behind Ricky Eusebio that grazed him, saving the Kernels from a game-ending wild pitch. Ascanio popped to short to send the game to extras.
“The Kernels finished 81-63, playoffs included. And that was with a revolving-door roster that included over 50 guys.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this coaching staff, which did a tremendous job this season. The parent Minnesota Twins are seeking to hire a new general manager and baseball operations president who likely will want their own people at all levels, including the minor leagues.
There’s not much more Manager Jake Mauer needs to prove. He led the Kernels to four consecutive playoff appearances, getting to the Western Division finals three times.
First-year hitting coach Brian Dinkelman and first-year pitching coach J.P. Martinez were outstanding as well.
"I’ll remember this game,” Mauer said. “This team, too.”