Facing Elimination from the Race
ROUND ROCK - An emotional Missions manager Rick Sweet had absolutely no interest in hearing Thursday night about what it will take for the Round Rock Express to clinch the Pacific Coast League's American Southern Division title.
"Until it's over, it's not over," Sweet said.
Sweet is right. It isn't over. The Missions aren't eliminated - yet.
But all that Round Rock needs to do to win the division is to claim one victory in its four remaining games at Omaha, or for the Missions to lose one of their last four in Nashville.
The clincher could come as early as Friday night, when the Express and the Missions open their final road series of the regular season.
Round Rock set the wheels in motion for a potential party in Omaha by knocking off the Missions, 6-1, in front of 11,341 at Dell Diamond.
The last game of the season between Interstate 35 rivals turned heated in the eighth inning.
The Express complained about pitches that were thrown inside, which led to trash talk, three ejections, and, finally, players from both dugouts and bullpens running onto the field.
Fortunately, it didn't turn into a fight.
But it did obscure the finale of an otherwise entertaining four-game series between teams battling for the pennant.
The Express (82-54) won three of four and opened a three-game lead on the second-place Missions (79-57) going into the last weekend.
If the teams finish in a tie, the Express will get the playoff berth because of its 10-6 record against the Missions in the season series.
Asked his opinion of the eighth-inning antics, Sweet said simply, "Couple of people that have no idea what's going on, and it created the whole problem."
Sweet didn't identify the people to whom he was referring. Asked if those people were umpires, he replied, "I'm not going to say."
Tempers flared in the bottom of the eighth, shortly after San Antonio reliever Jimmy Nelson yielded a leadoff single to Kyle Tucker and an RBI double by Taylor Jones that made it 5-0.
As Nick Tanielu came to the plate, Nelson threw two pitches high and inside. After the second one, home plate umpire Alex McKay issued warnings to both benches.
Missions pitching coach Fred Dabney was the first man to get ejected.
As Dabney came out to talk to Nelson, third base umpire Alex Ceja intervened. Moments later, Dabney was tossed.
The situation continued to deteriorate when Miguel Sanchez was called on to pitch, replacing Nelson.
After Sanchez retired two straight batters, he was facing Round Rock's Ronnie Dawson when another ball sailed high and inside.
Dawson and Missions catcher Jacob Nottingham started to argue, prompting McKay to throw both of them out.
At that point, players from both benches and both bullpens spilled onto the field with lots of talking, but without any physicality that was visible from the press box.
In discussing the event after the game, Sweet characterized it as a misunderstanding, when Tanielu took exception to the first high and tight pitch from Nelson.
"The first pitch was a breaking ball," Sweet said. "You don't hit people with breaking balls. Obviously, that's what started the whole thing. Everybody knew that that first pitch was a breaking ball, and it got away from him."
Sweet said Dabney went out to the mound to try and calm down Nelson.
"He was making a mound visit and they told him he couldn't, I guess, which, he can," Sweet said. "So, that's what started it."
Sweet said he is disappointed that the theatrics unfolded at the end of an entertaining series.
"I would say that," he said. "Because, overall, it was a good series. They beat us three out of four. They played better than we did. That's the bottom line."
About the only thing the Express didn't accomplish was a series sweep, which would have allowed them to clinch at home.
But in context, it's still satisfying for manager Mickey Storey to look back to mid-July, when the Missions held a five-game lead in the division, and to examine how his players have since soared into first place, to the brink of a title.
"That's why we play all 140 games," Storey said. "The best team at the end, with the best record, is the team (that wins). You know, being down games (in the standings), we slightly followed being down.
"But we have so much confidence in this team and so much ability to get it done, that it was never something that we thought was out of reach."
Pitcher Brandon Bielak (8-4) set the tone in the Express' regular-season home finale, pitching six scoreless innings and allowing only three hits and one walk. He struck out six.
Tucker led the way offensively with his 34th home run of the season. One of the top prospects in the Houston Astros' system, he went 2 for 4, scored a run and notched an RBI.
The Missions were held to five hits and avoided a shutout when Tyler Austin launched a solo home run into the seating above the left field berm.
Trey Supak (1-2) took the loss with a four-inning effort. The Express touched him for three runs on three hits in the fourth to take a 4-0 lead.
Myles Straw's perfectly executed bunt single brought in the third run of the inning.
American Southern Division - Round Rock 82-54, San Antonio 79-57, New Orleans 70-64, Oklahoma City 61-74.
American Northern Division - Iowa 72-64, Memphis 68-68, Nashville 63-71, Omaha 57-78.
Note: Teams play a 140-game schedule, with the last day of the season on Monday. The winners of the American Southern and American Northern divisions will meet in the first round of the playoffs. Another series will match winners in the Pacific Southern against the Pacific Northern divisions. Winners of the two divisional series will advance to the PCL title series. Both are best of five.
The Missions play Friday night at Nashville to kick off a four-game series to end the regular season. Corbin Burnes will get the ball first as an opener in the first game. After that, Zack Brown will start Saturday and Thomas Jankins on Sunday. The starter for Monday's season-finale hasn't been announced.
Bubba Derby is a do-it-all type performer on Rick Sweet's pitching staff. In his last three outings, he started a game and got the win, closed in the ninth inning and earned a save and then pitched the middle innings for another victory. In those three outings, he's worked eight innings and struck out eight, allowing one earned run and five hits. He got the victory in a 14-8 victory at Round Rock Wednesday night.
Express-Missions series notables
Round Rock won the season series 10-6, including 6-2 at home. In the first 16 games between the franchises as PCL franchises, here are a few notable series performances:
Tucker hit six home runs and Jack Mayfield and Taylor Jones three apiece for the Express. Alex De Goti hit .302, while Drew Ferguson (.297) and Jack Mayfield (.293) also hit well..
The most dominant pitchers for Round Rock were Jose Urquidy (2-0, 0.51 ERA) and Kent Emanuel (1-0, 1.42).
For the Missions, Nate Orf, Troy Stokes, Jr. and Tyrone Taylor hit two homers apiece against the Express, and David Freitas led the team with a .353 batting average (18 for 51).
On the pitching staff, Derby (1-1, 3.65 ERA) and relievers Deolis Guerra (0.00 in 7 and 2/3 innings, with two holds) and Taylor Williams (1.93) had the best success against the Express.
Eight is enough
When the Missions won 14-8 on Wednesday night, they improved to 2-3 against the Express and to 6-20 overall this season when giving up eight or more runs.
Sweet said he thinks 'a few' of his players could be called up this weekend when major league rosters expand.
Prime candidates will be the 12 Missions who are listed on the Milwaukee Brewers' 40-man roster.
They include five pitchers (Jake Faria, Freddy Peralta, Supak, Aaron Wilkerson and Williams), two catchers (Freitas and Nottingham), two infielders (Travis Shaw and Tyler Saladino), and three outfielders (Ben Gamel, Stokes and Taylor).
Saladino is injured and is working in a rehabilitation program in Arizona.
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