DAYTONA, Fla. -- Finally, it truly was home sweet home for the Daytona Cubs.
The Cubs captured their first Florida State League championship since 2000 and did so in front of their devoted home fans at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona on Tuesday night, beating the Fort Myers Miracle, 7-3.
The visiting team won all three games in the Cubs' East Division best-of-3 series against the Palm Beach Cardinals, and the visitors also had taken the first three games of the best-of-5 Championship Series before the Cubs turned the tables on the West Division champs.
Cubs second baseman Tony Thomas, who was named championship series MVP, knew a little something about playing in front of the home fans. Thomas was born and raised in the Tampa area and the ACC Player of the Year for Florida State in 2007, the same year the Cubs took him with their third-round pick.
In his first full season, Thomas developed into one of the team's most solid players over the course of the summer, hitting .266 with 22 steals and making just six errors at second all season.
In the postseason, his bat really came alive. Thomas went 14-for-29 in seven playoff games, with eight runs scored and seven RBIs.
"It's just a great feeling to know all the hard work we put in the season and offseason is paying off," Thomas said. "I'm just speechless. A lot of people didn't think we could make it this far, so it feels really good."
On the mound, 2008 first-rounder Andrew Cashner got the win in relief of starter Marcus Mateo. He tossed 2 2/3 innings of no-hit ball, striking out four and walking one before leaving with two outs in the seventh inning. The Texas Christian University product had thrown 3 1/3 innings of no-hit ball, striking out seven, in his other relief appearance in the East Division semifinals.
The Miracle (Twins) drew first blood in the second when first baseman Johnny Woodard launched a two-out solo homer over the right-field fence off of Mateo.
But the Cubs answered right back for three runs with a two-out rally of their own in the bottom of the inning. It was started off by the most unlikely hero of the night, right fielder Yusuf Carter, who homered to left field.
Carter, the nephew of former Major League slugger Joe Carter, led the club in homers during the regular season with 13 but played in just one game between Aug. 16-31, as he sat in favor of Ryan Harvey in the pennant stretch.
Carter had just two at-bats in the postseason but with Harvey scuffling at the plate and striking out four times in the team's Monday night loss, manager Jody Davis inserted Carter into the seven spot and he answered the challenge.
"I came into the locker room and didn't know I was starting, but I had had a talk with my coach and told him I was ready when he needed me for the team," said Carter after the game, with champagne dripping down his face. "And when I saw my name on the lineup card, I came out and knew I was going to do something good."
And what was he thinking when he watched that ball sail out to left field?
"I was just 'go, go, go, go, go!'" Carter laughed.
Jonathan Mota followed his blast with a single up the middle and came home on a double by Darwin Barney. Thomas then collected his second hit of the night, an RBI single, but was thrown out trying for second.
That sudden end to the inning didn't stop the Cubs attack, as Jim Adduci (like Carter, a big league legacy) opened the third with a home run to left field, the fourth straight hit off of Miracle starter Alex Burnett.
Ty Wright followed with a single. In what may have been the biggest indicator that it was going to be Daytona's night. with designated hitter Blake Lalli at the plate, catcher Wilson Ramos had Wright picked off of first. But in a rundown play, Wright collided with Miracle shortstop Yancarlos Ortiz, which was ruled defensive interference, and Wright was awarded second. He moved to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly by Russ Canzler.
Mateo returned to the mound after being staked to the 5-1 lead and gave up three hits on back-to-back doubles by Ramos and Monday's night's hitting star, Whit Robbins, and a single to center by Edward Ovalle. That scored a run and put runners at the corners with one out.
The next batter, Garrett Olson, drilled a shot to right field, but Carter gunned it back to the plate. Robbins just skirted around catcher Steve Clevenger's tag, but Clevenger came up throwing and nailed Ovalle at second for the rare 9-2-6 inning-ending double play.
Clevenger caught every inning of the postseason for Daytona, but toughed it out to the end.
Kudos also have to go to the dazzling defense by the Cubs throughout the series, particularly Tuesday evening in the first baseman/pitcher combo of Canzler and reliever Jayson Ruhlman. On two consecutive batters, to end the seventh and open the eighth, the pair turned in highlight-reel plays.
Burnett, who had tossed a gem for Fort Myers in the West Division clincher with six innings of two-hit shutout ball, lasted a little longer, going 4 2/3 innings and giving up five runs on eight hits, striking out two.
Mateo, who left after four innings, gave up three runs on five hits, striking out three with one walk.
With the relievers in, Daytona tacked on some insurance in the sixth. It added two runs with the key hits coming from Clevenger, Mota and Barney, who hit his second double of the night to score Carter.
There was no rest for the Cubs on their road to their first title since 2000 as late August rain and the luck of the schedule made for a few nailbiters down the stretch.
Battling with the East Division rival Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins) to the wire, Daytona faced Jupiter head-to-head in the season's final series and, after rain postponed one game, didn't clinch a spot in the playoffs until the last day of the schedule.
Then it was on to face first-half champions, the Palm Beach Cardinals, where the first game was washed out before the Cubs rallied for a big come-from-behind 10-9 win in the substitute opener the next night, scoring six runs in the eighth. They fell to the Cards despite a late rally in Game 2 and moved onto the finals with a more decisive 5-1 win in the clincher.
It was the first title since Daytona was dubbed co-champions with the Tampa Yankees in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan wiped out the end of the series.
Fort Myers clinched its spot in the Finals and a shot at a first-ever title for the 17-year-old franchise Sept. 3 with a two-game sweep of the Dunedin Blue Jays.