For the ninth time in his 32-year tenure as Elizabethton manager, Ray Smith can call himself a champion.
"When we won the division series, [Smith] was like, 'OK, it's just another game.' So we were interested to see how he would react," said Tyler Palm, who allowed four hits over final innings of scoreless relief. "He walked in [the locker room] and said, 'Hey, is this the Appalachian League champions?' And we all went nuts."
On Wednesday, Twins No. 14 prospect Gilberto Celestino scored the tying run and doubled home the go-ahead run in a 2-1 victory over Princeton that clinched the Appy League crown. It was the second straight title for Elizabethton, which leads all Minor League franchises with 12 championships since its inception in 1974.
"I haven't really won anything my whole life, so this means, literally, the world to me," said Palm, a 23-year-old undrafted free agent out of Oakland University.
Beginning with a seventh-inning double play, Palm recorded five consecutive outs before being greeted by league MVP Wander Franco as he returned for his fourth inning of relief in the ninth. The 6-foot-9, 226-pound right-hander got the Rays' fourth-ranked prospect to line to Celestino in center field before nailing down the final two outs on a grounder and a popup to secure the title.
"I'm a big sinker guy, throwing fastballs and stuff, but I came out throwing sliders," Palm said. "They kept putting good swings on it, but I kept hammering them and, luckily, I have a great defense bailing me out."
Prelander Berroa, an 18-year-old right-hander, had just one appearance on the circuit before being tabbed as the E-Twins' starter in Game 2 of the best-of-3 Finals. The early innings quickly developed into a duel with Rays No. 6 prospect Shane Baz, but Berroa was the first to blink.
Princeton's Osmy Gregorio singled to center in the third to open the scoring. It was the only blemish on Berroa's record as he allowed four hits and a walk with four strikeouts over five innings before handing the ball to Palm, who took over in a tie game, courtesy of Celestino.
"[Berroa] did phenomenal," said Palm, who was slated to start before a late change. "If he were to get in a tight situation or something, I would come in for him, but he did his job and I did my job. But we just had an all-around great team effort."
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Celestino, a 19-year-old who was acquired in the deadline deal that sent right-hander Ryan Pressly to the Astros, lined a base hit off the glove of first baseman Vincent Byrd leading off the fourth. Baz seemed to stem the rally with two quick outs before DaShawn Keirsey snuck a ground ball down the third base line for an RBI double.
The teams swapped zeros until Twins second baseman Yunior Severino was plunked to start the eighth before being sacrificed to second by Lean Marrero. The P-Rays brought in reliever Steffon Moore to pitch to Celestino, who dropped a double into right to plate Severino with the go-ahead run.
"Big-time players make big-time plays," Palm said. "I honestly think I can give up a hit to the wall and [Celestino] can somehow find a way to catch it ... and he's just a great hitter."
Celestino batted .266/.308/.349 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 27 regular-season games with Elizabethton. He made it as high as Double-A Corpus Christi in the Astros organization but went 0-for-8 in three games before returning to Class A Short Season Tri-City.
Baz, MLB.com's No. 93 overall prospect, went 5 2/3 innings and gave up a run on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.