FREDERICK, Md. -- In the Frederick Keys' own version of winning one for the Gipper, this one was for Tommy.
With manager Tommy Thompson in the hospital with undetermined abdominal problems, the Keys went out Saturday night and won the Carolina League Championship Series opener, 3-2, over the Salem Avalanche at Harry Grove Stadium.
Thompson had been feeling ill and feverish Thursday night even as his team was spraying around champagne during its celebration after winning the Northern Division title over Wilmington. He checked into the hospital earlier Saturday.
Appendicitis, which had been suspected initially, was ruled out, but no diagnosis has been made, nor was a date set for his return to the club.
The high-energy Thompson came over to the Orioles this year from the White Sox organization, for whom he not only managed but spent 14 years as their roving Minor League catching coordinator. Although absent from the dugout, he was not far from anyone's minds, least of all hitting coach-turned-interim manager J.J. Cannon.
"Our team's been pretty motivated because of that. We love Tommy," Cannon said. "He set the tone for our team all year long, his energy runs through our team. We have extra incentive to do the job for him."
Cannon learned that Thompson had been hospitalized Saturday afternoon and spoke with the skipper several times. Thompson, meanwhile, knew he was putting the team in more-than-capable hands.
Cannon, also a newcomer to the Orioles organization, has managed in the Blue Jays, Braves and Astros systems and was Minor League Manager of the Year in 2001, when he guided the Lexington Legends to the South Atlantic League championship.
"I have a few cobwebs on me because I've set back and watched him work all year long, just being a coach," Cannon joked. "And now I have to regenerate my brain and think about strategies, like Tommy did."
Cannon was heartened by the fact that the Keys have been playing excellent fundamental baseball.
"Our guys have been playing solid baseball right now, executing, we're not getting beat by beating ourselves," he said, "so that makes it a little easier for me."
Although the Southern Division champion Avalanche had dominated the Keys all season, going 14-6 against the club and tattooing the Frederick pitching staff for a .304 average, their bats fell nearly silent against the trio of right-handers David Hernandez, Tim Bascom and newly installed closer Jason Burch.
Hernandez, who had struck out a Minor League season-high 18 batters in his last regular-season tuneup, allowed one run on five hits over seven innings, fanning out six -- all swinging.
Salem starter Sean White was having similar success in his first three innings before the Keys broke on top, 3-0, in the fourth.
With one out, Chris Amador walked and moved to second on a single by Zach Dillon, eventually scoring when Carolina League All-Star Ryan Finan doubled to left-center field. One out later, Brent Krause delivered the biggest hit of the game, a two-run double into the left-field corner.
After the game, Krause did not downplay the importance of winning the first game.
"Oh, it means a lot, to keep up the momentum of the last two games, keep our spirits high from the last series and keep on rolling to these guys," said Krause, who joined the club from an independent league in mid-July.
He did not, however, think that anyone had the regular-season series on their minds.
"I feel that wasn't a factor at all. They're just another team playing for the same thing, and the fact that they beat us in the past really doesn't come into factor right now," Krause said. "We've got the heart and the ability to do it."
The score remained 3-0 into the seventh, when Hernandez finally started to flag. After giving up a long, hard out to left field, he surrendered a solo homer to Tim Torres and avoided more potential damage when Pat Osborn torched a single to left field but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double.
Bascom, who is still the slated to start Game 5 -- should the series go the distance, came on in the eighth and allowed a soft single before Burch recorded his first postseason save.
That was not without a little bit of drama, however. Thanks to an error, a fielder's choice, a single by Chris Johnson and a wild pitch, the Avalanche got themselves within one with a runner at second and two outs. Burch bore down and, with a full count, got Osborn swinging at strike three to end the game.
The teams resume the best-of-5 series Sunday at Frederick before heading to Salem on Monday. The scheduled starters are Jason Berken for Frederick and Casey Hudspeth for Salem.
NOTES: Frederick, which finished the regular season at 64-74, is trying to become the third team in Carolina League history to win the championship with a losing overall record. They were the first team to win a half with a losing mark when they clinched the first-half Northern Division title at 32-37. The last team to achieve the feat was the 1985 Winston-Salem Spirits (58-81). The Thomasville Hi-Toms also did it in 1968 (69-71). ... Keys CF Kennard Jones, a product of nearby Beltsville, Md., was celebrating his 26th birthday Saturday. Jones, signed by the Orioles as a Minor League free agent before the season, was integral in the team's two-game sweep of Wilmington in the semifinals, collecting a single, double and triple in the opener and doubling and scoring a run in the clincher. He had a large contingent of friends and family (laden with gifts for the birthday boy) on hand for his big night Saturday and responded by reaching base in all three plate appearances. ... Salem is also trying to claim a slice of history in its quest to win the title as a Wild Card team. After Kinston took both halves in the Southern Division, Salem got its postseason slot as a Wild Card. The last time the club won the league title in 2001, it did so as a Wild Card, again with Kinston capturing both halves. Only one other team, the 2002 Lynchburg club, has won the league title as a Wild Card. The league began having Wild Card teams in the past decade. Prior to that, if a team won both halves, it received a bye into the Finals.