The Salt Lake Bees are getting awfully good at winning close games.
For the third time in the Pacific Coast League semifinals, Salt Lake defeated Las Vegas by a single run, this time 4-3 on Saturday afternoon to clinch a spot in the best-of-5 Championship Series.
"Our [starting] pitchers and bullpen got us out of some pretty tough jams for us to pull out three wins in this series," Bees manager Keith Johnson said.
That certainly was true about the bullpen in the ninth inning Saturday. Daniel Stange issued a leadoff walk to Dustin Lawley, who took second on a sacrifice and advanced to third on a fly ball. But Stange struck out Kirk Nieuwenhuis to end the series and record his first postseason save.
In the Finals, Salt Lake will face Omaha, which swept Oklahoma City in the other semifinal after finishing with a 70-74 record during the regular season. The Bees and Storm Chasers split their only four-game series of the season in Salt Lake from Aug. 3-6.
"I'll tell you what, that's a ballclub that's very dangerous," Johnson said. "This time of year, records mean nothing. All the record does is get you into the playoffs. Now it's about believing in yourselves and doing what you have to do to win."
Starter Billy Buckner (1-0) went 6 2/3 innings for the Bees and allowed two runs on five hits and three walks while striking out two.
"We've had a bunch of guys in our rotation who have been in and out with waivers and the like," Johnson said. "It's been kind of a mix-and-match group. Buck and (Barry) Enright and (Jarrett) Grube and (Matt) Shoemaker, who have been with us all year, they did a great job in this series."
Salt Lake snapped a 2-2 tie in the fifth on Tommy Field's solo homer to left field. The Bees made it 4-2 two innings later when Luis Rodriguez doubled home Luke Carlin.
The insurance run proved crucial as Las Vegas came back in the eighth on back-to-back doubles by Ruben Tejada and Mike Baxter. But Baxter was stranded at third base as Jamie Hoffmann grounded out and Rylan Sandoval was called out on strikes.
"The thing about it is at this point in the season, the [relief pitchers] that we had in the game have proven their grit," Johnson said. "If someone was going to get the job done, it was the guys we had out there. (Jeremy) Berg, (Dustin) Richardson and Stange have proven themselves for us, especially over the last two months of the season."
The best-of-5 Championship Series begins Tuesday night in Omaha. The Storm Chasers will be making their third straight Finals appearance, while the Bees are returning for the first time since 2002.