Ryan Dunn found himself in slightly uncomfortable position Thursday night: He was under a pile, at the bottom of a group of screaming, sweaty teammates. And he loved every minute of it.
Dunn's two-RBI single in the first inning sparked a four-run rally and Brandon Henderson was one of seven pitchers to shine out of the Renegades' bullpen as Hudson Valley ended a 13-year drought with an 8-3 win over Tri-City to claim the New York-Penn League championship at Dutchess Stadium.
"It was awesome," said Dunn, the Rays' 17th-round pick out of Oregon State this summer. "The fans showed up and it made it ever sweeter, they got so loud for that final out."
Dunn, who scored twice, was one of the first players to jump into the dogpile of players on the infield.
"I was on the bottom and it kinda sucked, but a good suck, if that makes sense," he laughed. "We did that whole thing -- got the trophy presented and popped the Champagne, so it was fun."
Hudson Valley, the Rays' Class A Short-Season affiliate, owned the league's best record (52-24) entering the playoffs and got by Brooklyn and Tri-City in three-game series to claim its second league crown and first since 1999.
"It's an amazing feeling," said third-year Renegades manager Jared Sandberg. "You work every day to get to this point. This team set out with a goal to win a championship, and it doesn't come around very often."
For Sandberg, the nephew of Triple-A Lehigh Valley skipper and Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg, the victory is especially unique: He played for the Renegades in 1998 and later came back as a hitting coach before taking over as manager three seasons ago.
"We knew we had a special team, and it was a special season," he said. "All season long, we were very resilient, we won games every which way possible. Then to get down, 0-1, in two series and come back to win both shows what kind of group we've got."
The ValleyCats, who led the league with 50 homers this season, couldn't quite break through against a lineup of pitchers thrown on the mound by Sandberg, who admitted after Game 2 that he hadn't picked a starter for the third and decisive game.
"We won this year with player development," said Sandberg, four days after the Rays and Renegades renewed their player development agreement through 2014. "Not overtaxing everyone and not overusing anyone, and we did it again tonight with a couple kids who pitched back-to-back for the first time. We wanted to take it easy on them."
Lefty Matt Spann, the Rays' 25th-round pick in 2010, got the start but was pulled after allowing two runs on three hits and three walks over 2 1/3 innings. Henderson (2-0) then came on and was the first of six relievers to almost completely silence the Tri-City bats -- the 15th-rounder struck out four over two hitless innings and combined with Marcus Jensen, Jose Molina, Alex Moshie, Jordan Harrison and Ryan Garton to hold the ValleyCats to just two hits and a run over the final 6 2/3 frames.
"We knew Spann would start, and our bullpen has been very good all year, so we got them in a situation where we could go to the bullpen. They did a tremendous job once again," he said.
Hudson Valley, coming off a dramatic win in Game 2 thanks to a late three-run homer by Richie Shaffer, came out swinging with a four-run frame in the first against Tri-City starter Joe Bircher. Joey Rickard walked, Tom Coyle reached on an error and Luke Maile drew a free pass before Dunn laced a two-run single to center. Leonardo Reginatto, who hit a late clutch homer in Game 1, followed with an RBI single to right to chase Bircher, and Jake DePew greeted reliever Brady Rodgers with another run-scoring single to left, all with just one out.
"We got early pressure on their pitcher, he fell behind in the first inning. I got a pitch out over the plate," Dunn said. "Get the lead and take the pressure off the team and play like we have all summer, it was huge."
"It was huge any time you can give yourself a four-run lead, it'll help you relax in a setting like this," Sandberg added. "You can put a lot of pressure on yourself. It helped everyone settle down."
Tri-City fought back with runs in the second and third -- Tyler Heineman scored on a wild pitch and Jesse Wierzbicki hit an RBI ground-rule double, but the Renegades' bullpen took over. Dunn, who went 1-for-3 with two RBIs and two runs scored, helped Hudson Valley score twice more in the sixth when he got beaned and came home on a wild pitch. Marty Gantt added a sacrifice fly in the frame for a 6-2 edge.
"We wanted to go out and win the first two games, but it proved the character of our team," said Dunn. "It showed in the playoffs too, every guy trusted the next guy if they didn't get it done."
The ValleyCats got another run back in the seventh on Joe Sclafani's RBI single, but they didn't go easy in the ninth. Harrison began the inning with two walks before Garton came on and walked Sclafani to load the bases with one out. Austin Elkins hit a chopper back to the mound which Garton fielded and threw home to get Jarrod McKinney at the plate before Wierzbicki bounced to Shaffer at third for the final out.
"Pandemonium," Sandberg said. "Huge dogpile, it was awesome. We had the fans came out and they supported us. It was a sense of relief to win, because in the ninth, it's not over and I think everybody was extremely hesitant. To finally take it one game at a time in the season and finally have one last big game and win it and have no game tomorrow, everyone just left it all out on the field."
Sandberg knows what it's like to reach the playoffs and be on the other end of the field, when it's the opposing players celebrating on the mound.
"I've been talking about that since 2008, when I was the hitting coach and what it was like to come back and then manage," he said. "To be on that '98 team, when we won 58 games and lost in the playoffs. I look back on that, and this year and think you can learn from that this year. To set that mark, with 52 wins this year and do that as a manager, it's pretty cool."
And for Tri-City, the Astros affiliate went 51-25 and claimed the Stedler Division before taking down Auburn in three games to advance.