In a holiday weekend of momentum changes, Mark Hamilton delivered the final, strongest blow on Monday afternoon.
Hamilton hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning and Josh Kinney worked out of a late jam as the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds edged the Iowa Cubs, 7-6, to claim the Pacific Coast League's American Northern Division title on Monday afternoon.
"The whole series was charged," said Hamilton. "Everyone was fired up, both teams were very emotional, the crowd was into it. We just managed to come out on top."
The Redbirds and Cubs both finished with the same records, 82-62, but Memphis held the edge in a postseason tie-breaker with more division victories this season. Iowa had put Memphis on the brink with a win on Saturday, but the Redbirds hung on, winning Sunday to set up a winner-take-all showdown on the the final day of the regular season.
Hamilton's 18th homer to center with two outs in the top of the ninth off Hung-Wen Chen broke a 6-6 tie and put Memphis ahead for good.
"As soon as it left the bat, I was pretty sure it was gone," said Hamilton. "It felt good -- it was on a good spot. I felt like I got good extension. With two outs, I was looking for something I could drive, get on second, hope someone knocks me in. But he gave me a good pitch to hit, and I just put bat on it and drove it out."
Kinney escaped trouble in the bottom of the frame, surviving a leadoff double and a two-out walk before striking out pinch-hitter Ty Wright and inducing a game-ending fielder's choice grounder from Marquez Smith to set off a team celebration behind the mound.
"Kinney comes in, and they looked like they might have a solid chance to score, and he got a huge strikeout," Hamilton said of Kinney's battle with Wright, in which he fell behind 1-0 but came back to get the punchout with a called third strike. "That was unbelievable for him -- he's been outstanding. That was such a big pitch. Then he got a sharp grounder -- Tyler Greene made a nice play, and that's the ballgame."
Memphis, the reigning PCL champions, won its second straight division title and third overall, its first coming in 2000 when the team also claimed the league championship. The 'Birds, a St. Louis affiliate, will host American South champ Oklahoma City on Wednesday in the first round of the PCL playoffs.
The loss may have been the final game that Iowa skipper Ryne Sandberg manages in the Minor Leagues -- the popular Hall of Fame second baseman is in the running for Chicago's managerial position in 2011 following the retirement of Lou Piniella last month.
The final half-inning was a classic battle, with Sam Fuld drawing a full-count walk to reach as the winning run before Smith, who went 0-for-5, grounded a ball to short, leaving Robinson Chirinos at third and the rowdy Iowa fans and their "rally penguin" in shock. Sandberg, who was ejected in Sunday's loss to Memphis, had words for the umpires following the tense final inning as Memphis celebrated behind him. Cubs pitcher Mitch Atkins, who did not play, was ejected from the dugout during Memphis' two-run rally in the second, setting the tone for a back-and-forth battle all afternoon on a warm Labor Day in Des Moines.
Hamilton said the Iowa fans made an impact on the game.
"The fans were on the umpires early with questionable calls, I guess. I think they felt they were getting squeezed, and, once the fans got into it, the dugout got into it," Hamilton said. "I guess Atkins is one who maybe said something, but it was weird -- all of a sudden, the umpire [Jason Arends] turns, points to the dugout and throws him out. So there was definitely a little controversy going on early, some disagreeing."
Memphis struck first when Iowa starter Jay Jackson hit Tyler Greene to load the bases and then walked Dan Descalso to force in a run, prompting Atkins' ejection. Allen Craig followed with a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 lead.
Iowa answered immediately in the bottom of the frame when Bobby Scales hit an RBI double and Chirinos knocked him in with a base hit to center.
Redbirds starter Evan MacLane helped himself with an RBI single in the third to give Memphis a brief, 3-2 lead, but Iowa wasn't done. The Cubs stormed back in the fourth when Jason Dubois hit a leadoff homer, his first of two on the day, and Chirinos and Jackson added RBI doubles in a three-run rally. Dubois' two-out drive in the fifth made it a 6-3 game.
"After they beat us those first two games, they were jacked up," Hamilton said. "You could see the way they were playing, there was a lot of emotion on the field. When their pitcher [Jackson] hit the double, he went crazy at second."
The Redbirds tied it in the seventh when Craig hit an RBI single and scored on a fielder's choice grounder from Joe Mather. Ruben Gotay's sac fly plated Hamilton for a 6-6 tie.
The teams played an equally intense game a night earlier, with Craig's clutch hit in the 15th inning giving the Redbirds the win. Both Sandberg and Redbirds manager Chris Maloney were ejected earlier in that game.
Hamilton finished 3-for-4 with two doubles, raising his average to .298 in the season finale. The Tulane product is batting .400 with five homers and 13 RBIs over his last 10 games. He had 22 RBIs in 25 games last month.
"It's been a great season," said Hamilton. "Anytime you win 80-something games in the Minors -- we have a great group of guys. We never give up. We were down, and they had the momentum, and we came in and took it on ourselves and got it back."
Hamilton also credited Maloney, who led the team to the PCL championship in 2009.
"He's the best," Hamilton said. "He was the best last year, he's the best this year, and he's just a lot of fun to play for. He's emotionality charged into every game. He's one of those guys that makes you want to work hard. It's wonderful being in the dugout with him."
Hard-throwing reliever Adam Reifer earned the win in his Triple-A debut, turning in a scoreless eighth. Chen took the loss, allowing Hamilton's home run in two innings of work.
MacLane, who won the clinching game last season when Memphis beat Sacramento, allowed six runs -- four earned -- on seven hits over five innings. He struck out three and allowed both home runs to Dubois. Jackson was charged with four runs on seven hits over six frames.
The Redbirds will host the RedHawks Wednesday and Thursday before traveling to Oklahoma City in the best-of-5 series.
"We just want to carry momentum of the last two games into the playoffs," Hamilton said. "Oklahoma City is a great team. We've had some good battles this year, so we're going to go in and play hard and play our game. Hopefully, we can come out and go to the league finals."