The Northwest Arkansas Naturals used last week's four-game sweep of the Arkansas Travelers to reach the postseason in their inaugural season. Their intrastate rivals returned the favor in the opening round of the Texas League playoffs.
Hank Conger went 3-for-5 with a homer and four RBIs and David Austen pitched nine gutty innings Saturday night as the Travelers advanced to the Texas League Championship Series with a 6-3, 11-inning victory over the Naturals at Arvest Ballpark.
"It has developed into quite a rivalry," Arkansas manager Bobby Magallanes admitted after his team reached the Finals for the first time since 2005.
"At the beginning of the season, the media made it a big deal, but as the season went on it really did become a rivalry. To be honest, I never would have believed that the team that would win this series would sweep."
Conger made sure it ended exactly that way as he carried the Travelers' offense in the finale. The switch-hitting DH, who spent the regular season in the Class A Advanced California League, opened the scoring with an RBI double in the second inning. He belted a solo homer in the fourth to give Arkansas a brief 3-2 lead and followed Ben Johnson's go-ahead RBI double in the 11th with a two-run single.
"Conger is as advertised. He's an RBI guy," Magallanes said. "He had more RBIs (75) than games played (73) this year. He's a clutch, clutch hitter. That two-out base hit really put the nail in the coffin."
Austen, who battled through injuries and ineffectiveness for much of the campaign, was at his best in Game 3. The 27-year-old right-hander yielded three runs on eight hits and a walk with five strikeouts in the longest outing of his career.
"What a tremendous performance. I'm so proud of him," Magallanes said. "For him to come and do what he did tonight in a playoff game, my hat is off to him."
Fernando Rodriguez and Doug Brandt (1-0) combined to work a scoreless 10th before Rafael Rodriguez tossed a perfect 11th for his third save of the series.
Wilberto Ortiz went 2-for-5 with a run scored for Arkansas, which will meet South Division champion Frisco in the best-of-5 Finals.
"They're the best team in the league," Magallanes said of the RoughRiders. "They won both halves and just kept reloading that team after losing guys to Triple-A and the Majors. We just hope to contain them."
Despite three straight losses, the Naturals can take pride in putting together a season-high eight-game winning streak in late August to capture the South Division second-half crown.
Kyle Crist (0-1) took the loss after surrendering three runs on three hits and a walk in the 11th. Northwest Arkansas starter Rowdy Hardy yielded three runs on seven hits with one strikeout in five frames.
Mario Lisson did his best to keep the Naturals from elimination, belting a pair of homers and driving in all three runs.