Audio: Baxter's blast
Audio: Storm surge into Finals
Complete playoff coverage
Gear up for the championship series
Until the final out was recorded on Tuesday, Lake Elsinore wanted to be the underdog. The Storm were so determined not to return to Lancaster that they took on the mind-set of a team playing for its life.
So it wasn't until R.J. Rodriguez struck out Steve Garrabrants to end Lake Elsinore's 14-7 victory that the Storm finally allowed themselves the chance to relax and celebrate.
Players piled atop each other on the field, then doused each other with champagne and beer in the clubhouse after winning the best-of-5 California League South Division Championship Series, 3-1.
"To be able to go in there and see your lockers all taped up and being able to let loose and pour champagne all over each other is such a good feeling," Storm shortstop Sean Kazmar said. "I can't describe how good it feels to win. When you're able to pop champagne after a big game, you know you're doing something right."
Not only does Lake Elsinore get a day off, they don't have to travel for the start of the best-of-5 Cal League Finals. The series begins Thursday against the North Division champion San Jose Giants at The Diamond.
Although Lancaster led the league in most offensive categories and set a single-season home run record, it was the Storm who built an insurmountable lead. Lake Elsinore batted around in a seven-run sixth inning, sending 10 men to the plate.
The biggest hit was Seth Johnston's RBI double. Rather than bash the ball, the Storm flashed their ability to get on base. Six consecutive batters reached on five singles and a walk. Kazmar and David Freese delivered run-scoring base hits and Craig Cooper followed with a two-run single.
Mike Baxter added a two-run single that gave the Storm a 12-1 cushion.
"Everybody got their hits," Baxter said. "That's what we wanted to do. We didn't want to go back to Lancaster. We set the pace early. We wanted to set the tone."
The Storm did just that by scoring in each of the first three innings against Lancaster starter T.J. Nall, building a 5-0 lead. Jose Lobaton singled in a run and scored on Freese's base hit in the second to make it 4-0. Baxter cracked a solo homer in the third.
Every member of the Lake Elsinore starting lineup had at least one hit and scored at least once; seven of the nine had at least one RBI. Baxter and Freese led the way with three RBIs apiece. Lobaton and Kazmar each went 3-for-4, with Lobaton scoring three times. Kazmar contributed two RBIs and two runs scored.
Lake Elsinore starter Cory Luebke (1-0) retired the first seven batters he faced before walking Zak Farkes with one out in the third. He didn't allow a hit until Steve Garrabrants got Lancaster on the board with a leadoff homer in the fourth. That was the only run Luebke surrendered among three hits over 5 1/3 innings while striking out five and walking two
Nall (0-1) took the loss after giving up five runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. T.J. Large was charged with six runs on five hits in two frames.
Lancaster tried to rally but never really threatened. The comeback bid was fueled by Salvador Paniagua, who homered in consecutive innings. He connected for a two-run shot in the seventh and a three-run blast in the eighth that cut the lead to 13-7. It capped a huge postseason for the 24-year-old, who batted .375 with four homers and nine RBIs in four games.
"It seemed like every inning we were able to put runners on base and get at least one big hit. In the sixth, we got three or four big hits," Kazmar said. "We're going to wake up [today] with smiles on our faces and know we have a tough task ahead in the [next] series."
Tim Leonard is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.