Whitecaps rally to Midwest League crown

Bullpen holds on in Game 5 for West Michigan's first title since 2007

The Whitecaps captured their sixth Midwest League title in franchise history and first in eight years. (West Michigan Whitecaps)

By Alex Kraft / MiLB.com | September 22, 2015 1:30 AM

In 2004, Andrew Graham celebrated a Midwest League championship as a catcher for West Michigan. On Monday, the Whitecaps manager got a chance to watch his own players celebrate one.

"It's a great feeling," Graham said. "These guys have been working hard all year. Since we got here, we believed in ourselves. We battled and I'm real proud of these guys."

The Class A Whitecaps held on for a 3-2 victory over Cedar Rapids at Perfect Game Field on Monday night to win the best-of-5 Midwest League Championship Series and take home the franchise's first title since 2007.

The team had been forced to work out of a 2-1 deficit in the series after splitting two games at home and losing the first of three straight games in Cedar Rapids.

"Playoff baseball can be crazy," Graham said. "These guys believed in themselves. We were down in a similar situation in [the semifinals against] Lansing and battled back. These guys believed in their ability and came through."

The Whitecaps rode a solid pitching performance by 23-year-old right-hander Ross Seaton (1-0), who held the Kernels to two runs -- a solo homer in the third inning by Austin Diemer and an RBI single in the fourth by T.J. White -- on four hits and one walk over 6 2/3 innings. He struck out seven.

"He's a great veteran starter," Graham said. "He did a great job. He was composed and mixed pitches well to get some swings-and-misses."

West Michigan waited out Cedar Rapids starter Randy LeBlanc (0-1), who faced the minimum through four frames. However, walks to Detroit's No. 10 prospect Christin Stewart and Will Kengor and a single up the middle by Joey Pankake loaded the bases, setting the stage for Francisco Contreras' RBI fielder's choice and a run-scoring single by David Gonzalez that tied the game.

That chased LeBlanc and the Whitecaps took the lead one batter later on a wild pitch by reliever Luke Bard that scored Contreras.

West Michigan relievers Gerson Moreno, Adam Ravanelle and Joe Jimenez combined to walk four, but held the Kernels hitless over the last three scoreless innings. In the Whitecaps dugout, the nerves could be felt as they clung to a one-run lead.

"It was real nerve-wracking being such a close game," said Graham. "But we believed and our bullpen prevailed. Every arm that we brought in did their job."

When Jimenez fanned Diemer for the final out in the ninth, the tension in the Whitecaps dugout immediately turned to elation. After finishing with a losing record in the season's first half, making the playoffs as a Wild Card and rallying from a 1-0 deficit in the best-of-3 semifinals, their hard work had paid off.

"It was a great feeling," said Graham. "One of those feelings that just shows you all the hard work they put in and how hard they all played, and that made it all worth it."

It was a sensation Graham has now felt from both sides of the dugout steps, though the skipper didn't hesitate to place Monday's up a notch.

"This one means a lot more to me," he said. "I was a lot more involved than I was as a catcher on the [2004] team. Obviously they both mean a lot to me, but being my first year as a manager and being able to work with these guys all year, I couldn't be happier."

Alex Kraft is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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