MIDLAND, Mich. - The logic-defying race for the Midwest League Eastern Division's final playoff berth now has a new leader.
The Great Lakes Loons, playing in front of a record crowd at Dow Diamond on a night filled with drama, took over the wildcard lead with a 2-1 win over Lake County.
With a runner on third and two outs and two strikes against him, the Loons' Alex Santana lined a ball to rightfield that Lake County outfielder Mike Papi dove for, but couldn't hang onto, touching off a walk-off celebration in front 6,191 fans who packed the ballpark for the final home game of the regular season.
The Loons (30-36 in the second half) entered the game a half game behind Dayton and Fort Wayne but inched to the front of the pack when both the Dragons and TinCaps lost. They'll conclude the regular season with a three-game series at West Michigan that begins Saturday.
"It's in our own hands now," said Loons manager Bill Haselman. "It's not going to be easy, because West Michigan is one of the best teams in the league, but we control our destiny and that's all we can ask."
The five-team wildcard race also includes Bowling Green, which lost to South Bend to fall a game off the pace, and Lansing, which swept Dayton and is now just a half-game out of first.
But the Loons made the night's biggest move with the win over a Lake County team which has been one of the division's hottest teams in the second half.
Lake County - which clinched its own playoff spot on Wednesday by defeating the Loons - scored an unearned run in the sixth inning off of Loons starter Jose De Leon for the game's first tally. But the Loons tied it in the bottom of the seventh by manufacturing a run: Paul Hoenecke had a leadoff walk, took second on Webster Rivas' perfect sacrifice bunt, and then scored on a single up the middle by Josmar Cordero.
The score remained 1-1 until the bottom of the ninth when Rivas drew a two-out walk. He was replaced by pinch runner Malcolm Holland, who attempted a steal of second base. When catcher Sicnarf Loopstok's throw sailed into centerfield, Holland took off for third but was obstructed by Captains' second baseman Claudio Bautista.
Base umpire Adrian Gonzalez awarded Holland third base, and that's where he stayed when Cordero then drew a walk off of Lake County reliever Justin Brantley. That left it up to Santana, who lined a two-strike pitch to right that Papi nearly made a spectacular play on.
"I was just looking for a good pitch to hit, and I got a couple of decent pitches earlier in the count," said Santana. "I was just trying to put the ball in play at that point. When I hit it, I saw that he (Papi) made a good read on it, but he dove and I guess it was just out of reach."
Reliever A.J. Vanegas, who pitched a scoreless ninth, earned his first win with the Loons. Brantley (4-1) took his first loss of the season.
Both starting pitchers were brilliant. De Leon pitched 5 2/3 innings and gave up one unearned run while striking out 12 Lake County hitters. De Leon has 42 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings pitched since being promoted from Ogden in mid-August. Lake County starter Anderson Polanco pitched six shutout innings, allowing just three hits while striking out eight Loons hitters.
Right-hander Zachary Bird (6-16, 4.37 ERA) is the Loons scheduled start for Saturday's series opener at West Michigan. Bird is coming off a strong start in his last outing against Dayton.
The record crowd gave the Loons a final regular season home attendance figure of 230,202 fans.
"It's been great here," said Haselman. "No matter what happens from here on out, it's been a great summer with a lot of great memories. The ballpark is one of the best, if not the best, in the minor leagues and the fans came out in droves once the weather warmed up."
Should the Loons make the playoffs, they would host a first-round game next Wednesday.
The Great Lakes Loons are an eighth-year Single-A partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. For tickets and more information, call 989-837-BALL or visit loons.com.