Josh Hader's first full-season ride through the Minor Leagues was a unique experience, although the ending -- a 25-man dogpile and a champagne bath -- couldn't have been scripted any better.
The Astros' No. 11 prospect was stellar over seven innings on Saturday night, pitching Quad Cities to the Midwest League championship with a 4-2 victory over South Bend.
The River Bandits completed a three-game sweep en route to the sixth title in franchise history and second in three seasons. This was Quad Cities' first year in the Astros farm system and the championship came before a crowd of 3,607 at Modern Woodmen Park.
Hader (2-0) limited South Bend to three hits and a walk while striking out eight. Of the four batters to reach safely against him, only one got as far as second base. The seven-inning stint was his second of the postseason after working beyond the sixth only twice in the regular season.
"I thought I threw well," Hader said. "Everything was working today. The command of my fastball worked pretty well. I was pounding the zone, mixing up my pitches, keeping batters off my fastball. It worked out well."
The 19-year-old left-hander was selected by the Orioles in the 19th round of the 2012 Draft out of Old Mill High School -- about 15 miles from Camden Yards. He began the season in the rotation with Class A Delmarva, another relatively close-to-home locale.
Hader, who worked around 85 mph in high school, emerged as a breakout performer with the Shorebirds, recording a 2.65 ERA in 17 starts while driving his fastball as high as 94 mph. A diamond-in-the-rough discovery by his hometown team, his fairytale story took an abrupt turn when Baltimore dealt him to Houston with outfielder L.J. Hoes for right-hander Bud Norris at the Trade Deadline.
The Millersville, Md., native made five regular-season starts for Quad Cities and had a 3.22 ERA, 16 strikeouts and 12 walks over 22 1/3 innings.
"A lot of stuff has happened in this first full season," Hader said. "Coming off getting traded late in the season and coming to a new team, it was pretty overwhelming. I had to get to know a lot of new guys and leave old teammates behind. It was kind of hard, but I fought through it.
"The guys on this team are great guys. They welcomed me in. Obviously, winning the championship, it's pretty crazy that all this stuff has happened in one full season in pretty much my first career full season. It's great."
Hader made his mark in the playoffs. He started the opener of Quad Cities' second-round series against Beloit and limited the Snappers to one run on three hits over seven innings. With the seven scoreless frames he threw Saturday, Hader reduced his postseason ERA to 0.64.
Hader's mother, Trish, and her boyfriend, Chris Kojack, made the drive out to see him pitch in the Finals.
Astros No. 14 prospect Rio Ruiz led off the second with a home run to give the River Bandits a 3-0 cushion against South Bend starter and D-backs' 2013 first-round pick Aaron Blair. The long ball was his third of the postseason -- he also homered in the deciding games of Quad Cities' first two series.
Ruiz, a 2012 fourth-round pick, hit .260 with 12 homers and a .766 OPS during the regular season. The 19-year-old third baseman finished strongly, batting .298 with five homers and a .900 OPS in August and .370 with a 1.247 OPS and seven RBIs in eight playoff games.
Astros top prospect Carlos Correa was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the clincher but finished the postseason with a .333 average and .900 OPS.
Blair (2-1) was charged with four runs -- three earned -- on six hits over 4 2/3 innings. He struck out seven, did not walk a batter and finished the postseason with a 3.86 ERA.
Quad Cities was one of six Houston affiliates that qualified for postseason play. The River Bandits joined short-season Tri-City as the only affiliates to win championships after the Valley Cats captured the New York-Penn League title.