116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - They walked behind home plate prior to the game and asked someone to snap a photo of them.
Brian Navarreto and Joe Jimenez smiled brightly as they stood side by side, their arms across each other's backs. Even though they are on opposite teams here in the Midwest League Championship Series, they're buddies, compadres, from Puerto Rico.
'We've played baseball together since we were small children. Little league and stuff,” said Navarreto, the Cedar Rapids Kernels catcher. 'We've played a lot of games together.”
Here was one, a huge one, against one another. This was face to face, pitcher against hitter in a game situation.
And Navarreto won. His slow chopper to third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning turned into a walk-off infield single that gave the Kernels a heart-stopping 3-2 win over West Michigan in Game 3 of this best-of-5 series.
West Michigan scored a run in the top of the ninth inning for a 2-1 lead, but Cedar Rapids rallied for two to send a loud Veterans Memorial Stadium crowd of 1,707 into a frenzy.
Game 4 is Sunday afternoon here at 2:05, with one more win giving the Kernels their first league title since 1994. A winner-take-all Game 5 would be Monday night at 6:35 at Memorial Stadium.
'They just don't quit,” said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer of his club. 'These guys keep battling. They threw some pretty good arms there at us in the eighth and ninth.”
Mauer was Jake Cool with reporters postgame, though one look at his trembling hands told you what this victory meant.
'I'm just staying out of the way,” he said, when asked if he would address his guys prior to Sunday's game to make sure they stayed on an even keel emotionally. 'They've battled their tails off, so I'm not going to sit here and tell them they've got to do this or that. Just go out and play, just like we've been doing since April.”
Edgar Corcino led off the bottom of the ninth by smoking the first pitch he saw, a 98-mile-per-hour fastball from West Michigan reliever Gerson Moreno, into the left-center gap. Mauer eschewed the bunt, let cleanup hitter T.J. White swing away and was rewarded when White lofted a long fly to the triangle area along the left-field fence that West Michigan left fielder Christian Stewart had pop in and out of his glove for a double.
Corcino was tagging up on the play and made it only to third base.
'That wasn't easy, but you've got to go through it,” Corcino said. 'You've got to step up and say ‘I got this.' Get the job done. That's how you do it. We got it done and got the win.”
West Michigan Manager Andrew Graham then turned to primo closer Joe Jimenez, who posted filthy numbers in the regular season. He walked LaMonte Wade to load the bases, then struck out Chris Paul on three pitches, including a pair of nasty sliders.
Max Murphy swung and missed badly at two more Jimenez sliders, but came through with a twisting 0-2 drive the other way to right field that Whitecaps right fielder Mike Gerber made a nice running catch on. Corcino tagged and scored, with White tagging and moving to third.
That brought up Navarreto.
'It was a great moment right there to face him right there,” he said. 'I was like ‘Oh, my God.' What a great experience for me. A great moment.”
Jimenez got ahead of Navarreto in the count, Navarreto fouled off a two-strike pitch and hit his winning chopper. West Michigan Franklin Contreras fielded it and made a strong throw, but he had basically no chance.
Navarreto touched first base, and the party was on. The Kernels stormed onto the field to celebrate, with the victory mob reaching right field.
After the game, Navarreto got the old shaving-cream pie to the face as he did an interview.
'The first pitch, I was looking for a fastball. Just to get him in, looking for the base hit,” Navarreto said. 'Then when I got two strikes, I was like ‘All right, I've got to put the ball in play.' That's what I did right there ... Nice and easy, let it happen. I just saw the chopper, and I ran down the line as fast as I could. I did it, I beat it, we win.”
Keaton Steele of Cedar Rapids and Artie Lewicki of West Michigan staged a classic pitcher's dual, with Steele allowing a run in seven innings and Lewicki a run in 7 1/3.
Reliever Luke Bard pitched around a leadoff walk in the West Michigan eighth but wasn't so fortunate in the ninth. Mike Gerber reached on a base on balls, was bunted to second and scored on Stewart's RBI single up the middle.
But just when you thought it would be the Whitecaps taking the series lead, the Kernels responded.
'Once I saw the pitcher wasn't going to get (Navarreto's hit), I knew we had a good chance,” Mauer said. 'That's probably the fastest he's ever run. Thank God, too.”
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