Will the meltdown in Keizer unravel the Dust Devils’ pennant hopes?

Things looked perfect on Sunday evening (August 24) for the Northwest League’s Tri-City Dust Devils, the Short-Season Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

They were ahead of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon. If they hung on, the first-place Dust Devils would take a two-game lead over the idle Vancouver Canadians in the standings for the North Division’s second-half pennant.

Then, the Dust Devils would return home, where they would play their final eight games of the regular season.

The scenario was perfect. Three more outs, and then go back home with a two-game divisional lead.

Tri-City had just gotten out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the bottom of the eighth, and when catcher Robbie Perkins caught Johneshwy Fargas’ pop-up in foul territory to begin the ninth—with the ball coming out of his glove before it settled in at the last moment—the Dust Devils were two outs away.

What happened next was just incredible. With Dylan Stamey on the mound, the Volcanoes loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a walk, loading the bases with one out. In came Josh Michalec, who hit his first batter to force in a run to make it 5-3. Ryder Jones followed with a two-run single off Michalec to tie the game, and Aramis Garcia then delivered a walk-off RBI single, stunning the Dust Devils 6-5.

The divisional lead had shrunk to just a single game.

Then the following night, Tri-City opened its season-ending eight-game homestand by getting blown out 8-1 by the Hillsboro Hops (who had won the first-half pennant in the South Division and had little to play for until the postseason). In Eugene, Oregon, the Vancouver Canadians won their game, 3-1, and suddenly the divisional lead for the Dust Devils was gone.

Both Tri-City and Vancouver had identical won-loss records in the second half entering play on August 26, but the Dust Devils no longer control their own destiny as they do not own the tie-breaker over the Canadians. That means, for the Dust Devils to make the playoffs, they need to finish ahead of Vancouver in the standings with only seven games to play.

It’s so tough because just two nights earlier, they were poised to take a two-game lead when they had that three-run cushion in the ninth inning. With the rest of their games at home following that contest, the second-half pennant was theirs for the taking…

Hey, perhaps they could still bounce back. If you root for underdogs, you would certainly root for Tri-City. For the season, the Dust Devils are 29-40 entering play on August 26, and only a modest 15-16 in the second half, but they still have a shot at making the playoffs. In their way now are a Vancouver Canadians team that has won each of the last three Northwest League titles, so it would be nice if the Dust Devils could somehow eliminate them during this final week of the season and put an end to the championship run. The two teams will not play each other in the season’s final seven games, so Tri-City will need some help in order to finish ahead of Vancouver.

We’ll see what happens over the next seven nights in the Northwest League.

I know this is short-season, and it’s completely different from the majors, but I suddenly thought back to the 1993 major-league season.

The Red Sox, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, would end up fifth in the AL East in 1993, 15 games back of the Blue Jays with an 80-82 record. The Yankees, Orioles, and Tigers all finished ahead of Boston. Just by looking at the standings, you would think they were totally irrelevant all season.

But not so.

On July 25, the Red Sox won their 10th straight game, beating Oakland 8-1 to complete a four-game sweep at Fenway. They had won 12 of their last 13, and were in a three-way tie for first place in the East, along with Toronto and New York. (Technically, they were percentage points ahead of both clubs, with a 55-43 record—a .561 winning percentage—while the Blue Jays and Yankees were 56-44 for a .560 winning percentage.)

The following night, July 26, the Yankees lost 5-2 in Detroit, with Tigers lefthander David Wells outpitching Jimmy Key. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were idle. That meant if the Red Sox won in Milwaukee, they would be in sole possession of first place in the AL East.

Now, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, it was no small feat for the Red Sox to be in first place in the final days of July. With Roger Clemens on the mound, they had a great shot against the Brewers, who were last in the East with a 39-57 record that was even worse than the Cleveland Indians (47-52), who at the time were perennial doormats in that division.

The Brewers had Rafael Novoa on the mound, a rookie lefthander who would go 0-4 with a 5.06 ERA in 22 major-league appearances. He had logged an 0-1 record with a 6.75 ERA with the Giants in 1990, pitched the next two seasons in the minors, and was now making his debut with the Brewers against the Red Sox. It was just his eighth career big-league appearance and third career start.

The Red Sox, who hadn’t seen him before, struggled against Novoa, who gave up just five hits and two walks over 8.1 innings. The only runs the young lefty gave up came as a result of a two-run homer by Mo Vaughn in the fourth with Andre Dawson aboard.

Thankfully, Clemens was even better, tossing five-hit ball with one walk and five strikeouts over 7.2 innings and turning over a 2-1 lead to the bullpen. After lefthanded relief specialist Tony Fossas retired lefthanded-hitting Darryl Hamilton, who was Milwaukee’s No. 3 hitter, on a flyout to end the bottom of the eighth, the Red Sox were three outs away from sole possession of top spot in the AL East.

Yes, again, this was just late July, but considering how the Sox had finished last in 1992, this was a miracle for Boston.

But there was the bottom of the ninth to be played. Fossas stayed in and struck out lefthanded power hitter Kevin Reimer, but B.J. Surhoff (yet another lefthanded batter) bunted for a single. In came closer Jeff Russell, who retired pinch-hitter Greg Vaughn on a fly to right. The Red Sox were one out away.

russellExcept the would-be final out came to the plate in the person of Tom Brunansky, the former Red Sox rightfielder who was one of the key players in Boston’s 1990 AL East championship season. In the final eight games of that 1990 season, Brunansky hit .400 with five home runs and 12 RBIs (with three of those dingers coming in a crucial game against Toronto on September 29). He is also remembered for his sliding catch of Ozzie Guillen’s liner in the rightfield corner at Fenway to clinch the division on the final day of the season.

Now in 1993, he was a Brewer, and was hitting only .178 going into the game against the Red Sox. And there he was, lining an 0-1 pitch from Russell over the leftfield fence for a game-ending two-run homer.

The stunned Red Sox never recovered. They (along with the Yankees) fell out of first place, a half-game back of the idle Blue Jays. Boston never got close again the rest of the season. Well, the Red Sox hung around for a bit but a four-game series sweep at home at the hands of the Indians in late August really helped bury them.

I’ve always wondered how things would have played out had Boston hung on for its 11th straight win that night in Milwaukee. I mean, Russell was only one out away. Had they won the division that year, he wouldn’t have attacked the city of Boston the following year after he’d left town. (I still remember the media talking about Russell’s comments on the radio back then, and those were the days without the Internet and social media. Had he made those comments today, he would be heavily crucified for what he said.)

Well, the 2014 Tri-City Dust Devils are much closer to first place. They do have fewer games remaining, though, to try and finish ahead of Vancouver. The season wraps up on Labor Day Monday, September 1. Yes, I know it’s totally different from the big leagues, but still, it did make me think back to the 1993 Red Sox. And Tom Brunansky. And Jeff Russell (and his comments about Boston).

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