The Spokane Indians couldn’t have drawn up a better situation for a ninth-inning comeback.
But what the Indians will likely remember about the 2014 Northwest League baseball playoffs is that big moments – and victories – remained just out of their grasp.
Cleanup batter Luke Tendler, who led the Indians with 11 home runs and 57 runs batted in during the regular season, grounded out with two outs and the bases loaded Thursday as the Vancouver Canadians escaped from Avista Stadium with a 5-4 win that clinched the best-of-3 North Division series 2-0.
Vancouver, which won Wednesday’s series opener 1-0 at home, will play for its fourth consecutive league championship against Hillsboro. Game 1 of that best-of-3 series is Saturday at Vancouver. Hillsboro completed a two-game sweep of Boise on Wednesday.
“That’s exactly what you want to see,” Indians manager Tim Hulett said of the ninth-inning situation. “If you’re behind, give yourself a chance and have the guy who’s been swinging the best bat for you at the plate. It’s a great finish.
“I like to win, but you’re still proud of the guys when they finish like that and not give in,” he added.
“We’re trying to four-peat and I’ve heard Spokane (1987-90) is the only team that won four straight, so to beat a team of that caliber says a lot,” said Canadians left fielder Jonathan Davis, who tormented Spokane with his defense in both games and went 3 for 4 with two runs and an RBI on Thursday. “We’re still not done yet. Hopefully, it will be a good series (with Hillsboro) and we’ll come out on top.”
Counting postseason, Vancouver won its last six games against Spokane after the Indians won six of the first eight matchups.
The Indians neutralized Vancouver’s offensive power during the series, keeping the league’s top three base-stealers, Roemon Fields, Tim Locastro and Franklin Barreto, without a stolen base and holding the league’s top two RBI men, Barreto and Ryan McBroom, without an RBI.
But the bottom of the Canadians’ order did the damage. The Nos. 6-9 hitters, Chris Carlson, Davis, Richard Urena and Michael De La Cruz, went 8 for 12 with all five runs and RBIs. Catcher De La Cruz, who didn’t start Wednesday’s game, gave Vancouver the lead for good at 2-1 with a one-out, two-run double off losing pitcher Richelson Pena in the fifth inning.
“You could see in (the fifth inning) that he was starting to miss with his change-up and was starting to miss with his secondary pitches,” Hulett said. “We knew he was getting tired and we tried to ride him as long as we could.”
Pena exited after six innings and 90 pitches. Erik Swanson relieved and ran into trouble when Carlson singled and scored from third on Davis’ triple. Johnny Fasola took over as Spokane’s third pitcher and gave up Richard Urena’s RBI triple and De La Cruz’s sacrifice fly to center for a 5-1 Vancouver lead.
Winning pitcher Jairo Labourt, dinged by Tendler’s RBI single in the first, lasted six innings. The Indians started fighting back and energizing the small crowd of 1,607 in the eighth on Seth Spivey’s one-out RBI double and Josh Morgan’s two-out RBI single for a 5-3 game.
Pepe Cardona opened the bottom of the ninth with a single to center and scored on Fernando Vivili’s one-out, pinch-hit double down the left-field line. Jose Trevino and Spivey walked to load the bases for Tendler, who took a high strike on a 2-0 pitch, fouled off the fourth pitch and grounded to shortstop.
“The first strike looked up, but it’s close and we have that guy up there to hit, not to walk,” Hulett said.