In a fitting conclusion to a season which saw many of Kansas City’s top prospects on their roster, in turn leading to their being one of the youngest teams in the league, the Lexington Legends edged the Lakewood BlueClaws, 2-1, taking the series three games to one and earning their first championship since the team was founded in 2001.
LHP J.C. Cloney went five strong innings, allowing only two hits while walking one and striking out two. Marcelo Martinez and Janser Lara kept Lexington in the fight, combining for three innings of one-run ball, and closer Tad Ratliff worked out of a late-game rally as Lakewood loaded the bases and threatened to force a fifth game.
Lakewood righty Spencer Howard also went five innings, allowing a single run on three hits, walking none and striking out six. Reliever James McArthur stifled Lexington’s offense over three shutout innings, giving up only one hit, walking one and striking out two. Connor Brogdon took the loss in his inning of relief (1 R, 1 H, 2 BB, 1 K).
The Legends went down in order in the first, with Kyle Isbel flying out to LF Matt Vierling on a 2-1 pitch middle-in, MJ Melendez working the count before a swinging strike three right around his knees put him away, and Nick Pratto lifting a pitch right down the heart of the plate to RF Jhailyn Ortiz to end the inning. Cloney got Vierling to whiff on a 1-2 pitch on the outer third of the plate, but CF Simon Muzziotti stayed inside a pitch on the black and sent a base hit to short. Muzziotti stole second, but 1B Jake Scheiner flew out to LF Brewer Hicklen and C Rodolfo Duran‘s grounder to SS Cristian Perez went for the third out when Perez tossed to 3B Manny Olloque, who tagged Muzziotti to end the inning.
Hicklen got the top of the second underway when he flew out to Muzziotti on a 1-1 change-up that split the plate, Olloque took a 98-MPH heater to left that Vierling had to chase to the warning track, and Perez grounded to 2B Dalton Guthrie on the first pitch he saw for the third out. In the home half, Ortiz popped up to Perez (also on the first pitch), who had to chase it into the middle of the diamond. SS Nick Maton smacked a liner just to the right side of second, but 2B Ricky Aracena made a great diving grab to put him away. DH Colby Fitch reached on an miscue by Aracena, then swiped second when Aracena dropped the throw from Sebastian Rivero. Cloney walked Guthrie, but 3B Jose Antequera left them stranded when he lined out to Aracena.
In the top of the third, Howard struck out RF Cal Jones on a 3-2 pitch up and in, then Rivero struck out looking. Aracena flew out to Vierling to end the top half. Vierling led off the bottom of the inning with a 1-3 ground-out. Muzziotti sent an 82-MPH slider into center for a base knock, but was nabbed at second by about five feet on Rivero’s throw to Aracena. Scheiner popped up to Pratto on a 3-0 outside pitch to end the inning.
Isbel grounded into a 4-3 putout on a 93-MPH middle-low fastball to start the top of the fourth. Melendez ripped a 92-MPH inside fastball deep to right, but foul. Howard countered with an 81-MPH change-up that Melendez swung over, but an 0-2 curve got way out of control and Melendez took first on a HBP. He then took second when Howard’s first pitch to Pratto nearly took out his right ankle. At this point, Howard’s velocity was consistently 3-4 MPH lower than his first-inning fastballs. Pratto struck out looking on a 1-2 inside 81-MPH change-up. Duran struck out looking to begin the bottom of the inning, while Ortiz grounded out, Olloque-to-Pratto, and Maton flew out to Jones in right.
The Legends got a little offense going in the top of the fifth, as Olloque led off with a base hit to left. Perez cracked what would turn out to be a key hit in this pitchers’ duel, driving a double into left to score Olloque, moving to third when Jones sent a slow bouncer to second. Maton ranged past the second-base bag to field it, but had no play. Rivero went down on strikes, and Aracena popped out to Duran on a bunt attempt. Jones was able to swipe second, but Isbel struck out after working a full count. In Lakewood’s half, Fitch, Guthrie, and Antequera went down in order.
McArthur took over on the hill to start the sixth, retiring Melendez, who struck out looking, and Pratto, who lined out to Viering. After walking Hicklen, Olloque sent the first pitch he saw into center. With runners at first and second, Perez ended the inning when he popped up to Antequera. Marcelo Martinez took over in the bottom half, retiring Vierling on a fly-ball to Isbel. Muzziotti caught everyone off-guard when he dropped a push-bunt past Martinez and beat it out to first. Scheiner walked next, and Legends pitching coach Mitch Stetter made a visit to the mound (along with the Lexington infield, en masse), a meeting that home plate umpire Justin Whiddon tried in vain to bring to a conclusion. Martinez induced a pop-out from Duran, put away by Aracena (infield fly rule in effect). That would bring an end to Martinez’s night, with Janser Lara taking over. A wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position. Ortiz shot a 2-2 99-MPH (!) pitch off the low-outside corner into right to score Muzziotti and tie the game. Scheiner was sent right behind him, but Jones gunned him down at home.
McArthur got Jones to fly out to center on a 71-MPH curve on the outside corner to start the seventh. Rivero also flew out to center on a 92-MPH fastball that caught an awful lot of the plate. Muzziotti had to sprint back and to his right to get to it. Aracena turned on and grounded a 1-0 fastball to Scheiner to end the top half. Lara’s velocity varied widely (along with his location) as he faced Maton to lead off the bottom half of the inning. The Lakewood shortstop fought an eight-pitch battle before popping up to Rivero for the first out. Fitch worked one of the best at-bats seen all night, coaxing the walk out of Lara after working his way through ten pitches. Guthrie flew out to left and Antequera grounded into a 5-4 force-out to end the inning.
To begin the eighth, Isbel lined out to Scheiner on a bunt attempt, the ball (somehow) jumping off his bat on a low trajectory all the way to first base and just inside foul territory. Had one not seen the drag-bunt attempt, one would have thought it was a swinging out. Melendez took a short hack at a high 76-MPH curve but struck out on the pitch. Pratto took a hard cut at a 1-1 pitch that came right down the middle at 87, but grounded out to first for the third out. Lara came back to the mound for the bottom of the inning, inducing a 4-3 ground-out from Vierling on a low-and-away 94-MPH fastball. Muzziotti grounded out to Perez, and the Lexington shortstop had to rush to make the out at first. Scheiner flew out to Isbel to end the inning.
Connor Brogdon took over for McArthur in the top of the ninth. Right out of the gate, he had some trouble with locating and Hicklen drew the walk. Working the count to 1-1 in between three attempts to pick off Hicklen, Olloque drove a 1-1 slider into center when it caught a bit too much of the plate. Now with runners at the corners, manager Marty Malloy and the Lakewood infield rallied to Brogdon. Perez drove an 0-2 97-MPH fastball into right for the first out, but it would score Hicklen and the Legends would take a 2-1 lead. Brogdon intentionally walked Jones, then struck out Rivero. Aracena followed by grounding out to Scheiner.
As closer Tad Ratliff took over in the Lakewood half of the ninth, Carlos Diaz took over at third. Duran worked a seven-pitch at-bat into a lead-off single. Matt Kroon entered to pinch-run for the Lakewood catcher. Ortiz followed with a grounder to Diaz to force Kroon at second. After Maton went down on swinging strikes, Fitch sent a slider into left for a base hit. Another slider, this one to Guthrie, was bounced back to Ratliff, who lunged to stop the come-backer but deflected it away from a charging Perez, and Guthrie reached to load the bases. Stetter and the infield paid a visit to Ratliff to break up the action and perhaps give Ratliff a chance to take a deep breath. On the first pitch he saw, Antequera grounds to Diaz, who took the force at third for the final out of the game, the series, and the season.
Lara earned the win (though he also picked up a blown save; baseball is a weird game), his first of the series, while Ratliff earned his third save. The Lexington closer finished all four games of the series (5 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K).
Lexington was most recently in the championship in 2001, their first year of existence, and were up 2-0 in the series vs. Asheville when the terrorist attacks on 9/11 occurred. The remainder of the series was canceled, and the two teams were named co-champions. Cloney’s five shutout innings came in his first appearance since September 1st. The two teams combined to leave 15 runners stranded.