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Nippert clutch at plate, on mound for Tucson09/14/2006 1:14 AM ET
By Jim Street / MLB.com
TUCSON, Ariz. -- With two runners on base and no outs in the second inning, Tucson was poised to get an early jump on Round Rock in Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League Finals.
Two outs later, the same runners were still on base, and pitcher Dustin Nippert was the batter.
A situation that looked so promising was making an about-face as Express right-hander Matt Albers worked his way through the predicament.
Not quite all the way.
Nippert, a .167 hitter (6-for-36) during the regular season, worked the count to 3-1, and after a strike, took an inside pitch for a ball in what would turn into the most important walk of the night.
Alberto Callaspo followed with a two-run single to left-center field, propelling the host Sidewinders to a 6-3 victory on Wednesday and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 series.
"That was one of my better [at-bats] all season," the 6-foot-8 Nippert said. "I'll take a walk any day of the week because I'm not a hitter. If the last pitch had been any closer to the plate I probably would have taken a swing at it."
But things have gone well most of the season for the Pacific Coast League South Division champs, and continued to do so Wednesday. Nippert has the largest strike zone on the team and had walked just two times in the regular season.
And there is some special kind of karma when it comes to playing at home. The Sidewinders, playing their final home game of the year, extended their home winning streak to 10 games and finished the season with a 55-22 record at Tucson Electric Park.
"The guys are very comfortable playing here," Tucson manager Chip Hale said.
The series resumes Friday night in Round Rock with the Sidewinders needing one more win to capture the league title and play for the Triple-A Championship in Oklahoma City.
Tucson's final three runs came in the eighth when catcher Juan Brito drilled a bases-loaded double into left-center field off reliever Roberto Giron. The right-hander retired only one of the five batters he faced in relief of Albers (0-1). It was the third three-run eighth in four home playoff games for the Sidewinders.
The latest three-run rally was crucial as the Express scpred twice in the ninth before Tucson reliever Mike Schultz came in and retired three of the four batters he faced for his second save.
But the combination of Nippert's right arm and eyesight and the all-around play of Callaspo proved to be decisive.
The second baseman singled in the fourth, made two superb defensive plays to end innings and helped turn two double plays.
"Alberto, for me, was the Most Valuable Player of the league," Hale said. "I wrote him in as the MVP. I don't like to [vote for my own player], but I felt he deserved it. He has just been so big for us all year, batting in the leadoff spot and driving in all those runs. He has done a heckuva job."
The second-inning single enabled the Sidewinders to capitalize on a leadoff double by third baseman Brian Barden. Robby Hammock's ensuing single to right field was hit so hard Hale had to hold Barden at third.
Albers induced the next two batters to pop out to second base and was close to wiggling out of trouble. With Nippert standing in the batter's box, all 6-foot-8 of him, throwing a strike might not seem too difficult.
"People don't realize how hard it is to throw strikes to pitchers," Hale said. "That's when guys run into trouble. They tighten up and end up walking them. It was a huge walk, obviously. Some of those hacks he was taking, I'm not sure he was scaring the pitcher."
Nippert eventually scored on an Albers' wild pitch and the game settled into a pitching duel. Albers surrendered a leadoff single to Chris Carter in the third, but then retired 15 of the final 16 batters he faced.
Nippert had one small glitch during his seven-inning stint. It came in the fourth when Express catcher Hector Gimenez slugged a solo homer to right field.
"Bad pitch," Nippert said. "I just wanted to get another ball and go back to work, keeping the ball down."
And he did just that, retiring 11 of the last 12 batters he faced, ending up with his second postseason win in as many starts.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.