For most of the season, the 'Cats ranked third in the Stedler Division behind Vermont and Connecticut, trailing the Lake Monsters by as many as 9.5 games on July 18. But Tri-City went 17-11 in August to take the division lead at the end of the month. Connecticut won four consecutive games and jumped the ValleyCats on Friday night, but the 'Cats won an 8-7 shootout at Brooklyn on Saturday to move back into first place.
Connecticut took a 7-5 lead in the top of the 13th inning, but Aberdeen would not end its season quietly. Logan Hoch fanned the first two Ironbirds, but hit Mychal Givens and allowed a single to Blair Dunlap. #3 overall draft pick Manny Machado tripled to the right-field wall, scoring both runners to tie the game. Kipp Schutz followed with a single, plating Machado with the winning run.
When the Ironbirds rallied, the ValleyCats were in the middle of a comeback of their own. Tri-City had just scored four runs on five singles in the fifth inning when news of the Connecticut defeat traveled through the dugout.
"It was kind of a relief [when we heard], because we were losing 5-1 and battling back to tie," said veteran Ben Orloff, who went 2-for-3 tonight. "The last we heard was that Connecticut was winning, so it was a nice weight off our shoulders."
"I was in the third base coach's box, and when I looked back at the bench and saw everybody grinning and slapping backs, I knew we had clinched," manager Jim Pankovits said. "I was relieved - these last 2-3 weeks, every game has been a gut-wrencher, and these kids have responded unbelievably."
Tyler Burnett drove home a pair of runs with a bases-loaded single, and Adam Bailey plated two more with a grounder through the right side. Marcus Nidiffer came home from second on Bailey's hit, arriving home well after the ball but knocking it out of catcher Juan Centeno's glove with a vicious hit to tie the game at 5-5.
"You don't get to [run over catchers] that much in college, so in pro ball you have to take advantage of it," said Nidiffer, who was a quarterback in high school. "I rounded the bag and I knew I was going to be out, so I lowered my shoulder."
Bailey, who has hit 11-for-19 in his past five games, went 2-for-2 with a walk. He tripled in the second inning, scoring on a Mike Kvasnicka single.
The Cylcones took a 5-1 lead behind home runs by Jeff Flagg and Cory Vaughn, who set a Brooklyn franchise record with his 14th longball. Vaughn doubled and scored in the bottom of the fifth inning, scoring the decisive run.
But it was of little consequence to the ValleyCats, who pulled five starters once the playoff spot was decided. This marks the first playoff appearance for Tri-City since 2006, when it won the Stedler Division and reached the championship round. The ValleyCats finished in the Stedler Division basement from 2007-2009, and no Houston Astros affiliate has reached the playoffs since the Pankovits-led Salem club in 2007.
"Every game was a nail-biter, and we rose to the occasion more often than not, and we deserved to win it," Pankovits said. "I'm happy for these players who have never experienced this. The experiences in this pennant stretch and what they'll face in the playoffs will benefit them for the rest of their careers."
It was going to come down to the very end. We've been playing well all year, and now we've got a bit of momentum going into the playoffs.
The Ironbirds led 4-1 until Connecticut struck for two in the third and one in the fourth. The Tigers scored a run in the top of the 11th inning, but Aberdeen did likewise in its half to continue the game.
The ValleyCats will host Batavia on Tuesday to open a best-of-three series. Games two and three (if necessary) will be played at Batavia. If the ValleyCats win, they will advance to the championship round, which begins Saturday, September 11. Playoff tickets can be ordered online, by phone or at the Box Office at Joe Bruno Stadium.