SOUTH BEND, IN - For the first time since 2007, the West Michigan Whitecaps are Midwest League Eastern Division champions.
It all boiled down to the final game of the first half on Sunday, when the Whitecaps rallied for a 4-1 victory over the South Bend Silver Hawks at Four Winds Field to finish a half-game ahead of their division rivals.
West Michigan (41-29) scored all of their runs during a four-run outburst in the top of the sixth inning. Three Whitecaps' pitchers combined to limit South Bend (40-29) to just one run on five hits, working around nine walks to strand 14 Silver Hawks on base.
The Whitecaps were blanked by South Bend starting pitcher Blayne Weller (3-4) through the first five innings, but that changed in the sixth when a fly ball by Raph Rhymes dropped between two confused defenders for a leadoff double. Dominic Ficociello then reached on an infield single to put runners at the corners with nobody out.
What followed were a pair of two-strike singles that gave the 'Caps the lead.
On a 1-2 count, Jeff Holm flared a base hit to center that scored Rhymes to tie the game. After failing to get down a bunt, Wynton Bernard took an 0-2 pitch and grounded the go-ahead single into center field for a 2-1 lead.
A bunt and a hit batsman loaded the bases for Jose Zambrano, who looped a breaking ball that narrowly cleared the first baseman and dropped inside the right field line to plate two more runs, giving West Michigan a 4-1 advantage.
The pitching staff did the rest, working in and out of trouble all afternoon.
The only South Bend run crossed the plate in the second inning when Michael Perez reached second base on a fly ball that was lost in the sun. He later scored on a sacrifice fly that put the home team ahead, 1-0.
But Kevin Ziomek (5-5), Joe Mantiply and Zac Reininger (4) were able to get outs when they needed to.
Ziomek allowed one run on four hits over 5.2 innings to earn the win. He stranded the bases loaded in the first and left eight men on through the first five innings to keep his team in the game. The left-hander walked six and struck out four, leaving the game with two on and two out in the sixth.
Mantiply extinguished that rally and went on to throw two innings before being relieved in similar fashion with runners at first and second and two outs in the eighth.
That presented the Silver Hawks' most dangerous threat, especially when Breland Almadova greeted Reininger with a single to load the bases for Daniel Palka, the Midwest League's second-leading run producer.
But Reininger needed just one pitch to induce a fly-out from the slugger before going on to strike out the side in the ninth.
With the first half of the 2014 season in the books, the Whitecaps are making the final preparations for the 2014 Midwest League All-Star Classic, presented by Amway, at Fifth Third Ballpark on Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. Gates open at 4:00 p.m. for batting practice, an on-field autograph session with both teams, and the Pepsi "Lost Art of Bunting" Contest. Season, group and individual tickets can be reserved by calling the Whitecaps' front office at 616-784-4131 or visiting www.whitecapsbaseball.com.
Click here to view the box score.