Audio: South Bend seals Finals berth
Audio: Collin Cowgill goes yard
Walker serenades playoff crowd
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Five months ago and seven games into the season, the South Bend Hawks still had not won a game. A 9-6 drubbing at the hands of Lansing completed a second straight sweep. The Silver Hawks ended up losing their first nine games before getting into the win column.
Flash forward five months, and with an improved clubhouse atmosphere and a host of new players, the Silver Hawks became Eastern Division champions Tuesday with a 4-3 win over the Dayton Dragons that completed a sweep in the second round of the Midwest League playoffs.
"You're going to think I'm kind of crazy, but I really believed," South Bend manager Mark Haley said. "When [front-office personnel] came in here, everyone said, 'Are you worried?' I said I'm not worried about these guys, they play hard, and even though they're 0-9, they're playing like they're 9-0."
It's literally a very different team than the bunch in April. Tuesday's hero was left fielder Collin Cowgill, who hit the go-ahead homer in a four-run fourth inning. Shortly after, Haley turned to his bullpen, with Bryan Shaw and Daniel Schlereth setting things up for closer Clay Zavada.
"I joined the team late, but right when I came we bonded instantly," said Schlereth, Arizona's first-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. "It's a great team and a great group of guys."
The Silver Hawks fell behind early, 3-0, as Jacob Kahaulelio and Michael McKennon homered for the Dragons. However, South Bend knew if it could get four runs, the game would be over.
"I thank [Diamondbacks farm director] A.J. Hinch because he helped our bullpen out quite a bit," Haley said. "When you have five guys in the middle, back end, you get to the fifth inning and you feel pretty good about where you're at."
Derrick Walker, who wowed fans and teammates by singing the national anthem before the game, provided another spark by scoring South Bend's first run in the fourth. He hit a leadoff single and came home on Joseph Batten's double. After Ollie Linton walked, Cowgill teed off, slugging his second playoff homer and 14th since signing out of the University of Kentucky in June.
"I tell you what, I'm so happy for him because he's overcome a lot of adversity. He hit 11 home runs in 14 days in Rookie ball and he came here and didn't hit his first one until [Aug. 30]," Haley said. "You could always see the power, but he never gave it to us. And then, boom, he starts getting it. It's a nice time to get it."
South Bend will travel to Burlington, where the Silver Hawks will openn the Midwest League Championship Series on Wednesday night. The Bees haven't played since Sunday, when they dispatched Cedar Rapids in a quick two-game sweep, holding the Kernels to three runs. Burlington's wait was compounded Monday, when rains forced the postponement of Game 2 of this series.
Monday's rains brought in a cold front, with temperatures in South Bend dropping below 60 degrees for the first time since the Silver Hawks' ugly April.
"You don't feel it when you're out there at this point in the year," Schlereth said.
As a team, South Bend overcame offensive shortcomings to win the East title. The Silver Hawks have batted .229 in five playoff games, but their pitching staff responded with a 3.89 ERA. The pitchers have clearly put the season on their shoulders, striking out 46 over 44 innings in the postseason.
"It's pretty exciting," Schlereth said. "I haven't been to a championship since high school. I'm just glad I can help this team out."
Bryan Smith is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.