February 27, 2013 - United League Baseball (ULB) - Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings
Cream rises to the top.
A phoenix rises from the ashes.
And the McAllen Thunder have risen from last place in the Texas Winter League season to win the championship game against the Edinburg Roadrunners, 4-1.
"You'd have to compare it to a play-in team winning the NCAA Tournament," said Thunder manager Greg Tagert, whose team went 4-11-2 in the TWL regular season but won two games with outstanding pitching performances from Chris Phelan and Justin Klipp.
"We showed early in the season what we were capable of, and then put our best foot forward in the series."
The Thunder opened the season 3-0, including two victories where they came from four and seven run deficits in their final at bat to win.
But injuries to catcher Jeff Allen and infielder Todd Alls as well as the absence of centerfielder Hiroki Itakura for 10 days due to a tryout with the Arizona Diamondbacks weakened the Thunder in the regular season. They limped to the end of the Texas Winter League season on a 10 game winless streak, often losing by lopsided margins.
However, Tagert had drafted a pair of quality prospects in Phelan and Klipp at the beginning of the season. And following Phelan's 3-0 shutout of the regular season champion Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings on Tuesday, it was Klipp (3-0) who put his best foot forward, keeping his fastball down and his breaking pitches away, scattering nine hits and striking out five in a 9-inning complete game.
"I've always been a big game performer. I love the pressure.
I've battled to find my mechanics this week. I finally found it today and tweaked my stuff," said Klipp. "It was a matter of slowing down."
For the first three innings Klipp and Roadrunners starter Aryo Fleming threw shutout innings, in large part because Klipp was able to induce Thomas Schull to hit into a first inning first base-to-shortstop double play, with first baseman Leo Madrid making a perfect throw to shortstop Masanari Kato, who applied the tag on Tsuyoshi Takashima.
However, Fleming (1-1) was wild, walking five batters in his start, including Madrid to lead off the fourth. After Allen then singled him to third, Klipp, batting for himself in the eighth spot in the order, laid down a sacrifice bunt that was fielded by Fleming.
Aware of how the Thunder scored a run yesterday when Tomochika Tsuboi snuck home on a safety squeeze after WhiteWings' pitcher Erik Sheridan fielded a bunt and threw to first base, Fleming spent extra time looking Madrid back to third. As a result, Klipp was able to reach and the bases were full.
Hiroki Itakura, who won the TWL batting title with a .462 average, then reached on an error by second baseman Jimmy Williams to drive in one run and Daiki Komori hit a sacrifice fly that centerfielder Vince Coleman Jr. had to make a sliding catch on in shallow right centerfield, scoring Allen.
The score remained 2-0 until the sixth, when with one out Klipp singled and Kato reached on an error by third baseman Takashima. Fleming was removed for fellow righthander Tyler Hanks, who got Itakura to fly to left before striking Komori with a pitch.
With the bases loaded, Derrick Pyles and Albert Carpen then followed with run-scoring singles off Hanks to make the score 4-0.
By then Klipp was on a roll, retiring 10 of 11 hitters he faced until Takashima single to centerfield with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Schull followed with another hit to right.
With Bryan Kloppe and lefthander Takati Sato warming up in the bullpen, Klipp got Mike Mobbs to ground out to third baseman Alls, who forced Schull at second as Takashima scored. Mobbs then stole second and went to third on an errant throw from Allen.
Then, after Tagert made a trip to the pitcher's mound, Vince Coleman Jr., who had driven in 24 runs to lead the TWL, fouled out to Madrid on a 3-1 count, slamming his bat down in disgust as the rally ended.
The Roadrunners had one last hope in the ninth when Phil Rowland led off with a bloop double to shallow left field when left fielder Carpen called off Alls to make the catch but could not reach the pop fly.
Memories of the Thunder's long losing streak came to mind as Hanks came to the plate, but the pitcher grounded to Kato at short.
Kato then made a brilliant play where he tagged Rowland, late in returning to second base, for one out then throwing out Hanks at first.
"That was the play of the year," said Tagert. "Kato epitomizes the league. He had never played the infield before. Neither had Komori. It's a credit to those guys for taking the ground balls every day before and after games."
Klipp, who did not walk a hitter in the game, then struck out Doug Freeman on a 1-2 breaking pitch away to clinch the championship.
"It was a lot of fun. Brooks [Carey, the Roadrunners' manager] said it best. As a manager you're here to find a player for your team for the season," said Tagert, who manages the Gary SouthShore Railcats of the American Association during the regular baseball season. "But here, in the playoffs, you're her to win it for the players."
Tagert did manage the Thunder to prepare for the postseason; spelling Allen, whose sore pectoral muscle at times prevented him from even swinging a bat, during the regular season with Anthony Hinderman and adjusting his pitching rotation to make sure Phelan and Klipp were on the mound for the postseason.
Carpen had three hits on the day to finish with a .433 batting average. Pyles had two hits and finished at .431.
WHITEWINGS 3, STARS 2
Kori Melo stole home with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning and the left-handed hitting Jacob Douglas batting to give the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings (11-6-2) a 3-2 victory against the Brownsville Stars (7-9-3) in the Texas Winter League consolation game.
Melo had reached base forcing Brandon Merrill, who led off the inning with a walk. After stealing second and advancing to third on a fly ball to right, Melo then came home on a straight steal in the catcher's full view to break a 2-2 tie.
Harlingen South and Texas-Brownsville/Southmost product Danny Gidora (2-0) threw a complete game, allowing only five hits while walking none and striking out six.
Meanwhile Steve Nikonchik's bid to overtake Chris Phelan for the league earned run average lead fell just short. Nikonchik (2-1) went the route himself, allowing four hits and two walks while striking out nine, but his 1.71 ERA went up to 2.33. Phelan led the TWL with a 1.67 mark.
Cody Brooks had two hits for the WhiteWings to finish the season with a .407 batting average. He also finished tied with teammate Brian Williams for the TWL lead in home runs with two.
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