The Sacramento River Cats converged on the mound and mobbed Jerry Blevins on Friday after holding on to beat the New Orleans Zephyrs, 4-3, and win the Pacific Coast League championship.
Brad Knox was nearly unhittable for seven innings before Blevins slammed the door on the Zephyrs by recording the final four outs to wrap up the three-game sweep at a raucous Raley Field.
Blevins struck out Andy Tracy, popped up Chip Ambres and caught Chad Hermansen looking at a third strike in the ninth to send the River Cats racing to the mound in celebration. It was Sacramento's third championship in five years and first since 2004.
"This is a special team, this is a bunch of guys who deserve everything," manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "They went through this summer, we had over 180 transactions, but there's something special with these guys. They came back from being down 2-0 to sweep Salt Lake. We swept a very good New Orleans team. It was a great effort by the whole squad out there."
The River Cats, who rallied to take three straight from Salt Lake in the first round, will face the International League champions -- Durham or Richmond -- on Tuesday at the Bricktown Showdown in Oklahoma City.
"This is special right here, but if we can get the game in Bricktown, it's a bonus," DeFrancesco said. "But our job was the win, the PCL championship."
Sacramento, which is 9-0 in championship-clinching games, celebrated in the infield wearing black PCL Championship T-shirts following the three-hitter. League president Branch Rickey presented the PCL trophy before DeFrancesco gave the MVP award to center fielder Nick Blasi, who hit .457 in the playoffs.
"He's been consistent," DeFrancesco said. "He's gotten a lot of big hits for us. He's our leadoff man, our catalyst and he deserves something at this point."
Knox admitted the title was his biggest accomplishment in baseball.
"I'm thinking who I'm going to tackle first," Knox said of his celebratory dash to the mound. "It was a really good feeling. I haven't had a good feeling like that in a long time."
Knox threw 73 of 119 pitches for strikes and allowed three runs on three hits and three walks with six strikeouts in 7 2/3 frames. The 25-year-old right-hander gave up one hit over the first seven frames for his second playoff victory.
"He had some great stuff today, he faced a great hitting team today, so you've got to give Knoxy all the credit in the world," DeFrancesco said. "He had all the stuff working, he threw a gem. It takes a special person to step up, and he did an awesome job."
"They were swinging early. I knew they'd be swinging early, so I pitched to them accordingly," Knox added. "Fastball-slider was working and I had more strikeouts than I anticipated."
Knox allowed only a leadoff double in the third to Jesus Feliciano and worked four perfect frames.
"I'm all smiles, the hard work paid off," he said. "We got what we wanted. That's what we worked for all year."
Knox ran into trouble in the eighth with two outs. He popped up Jason Alfaro and struck out Feliciano looking, but a heated argument and Feliciano's ejection knocked Knox out of his groove.
"We had to wait for Feliciano to walk off the field and it got to me, it ruined my rhythm," said Knox.
After that, Knox walked Shawn Wooten and gave up a single to Anderson Hernandez before Fernando Tatis connected for a three-run homer to deep left.
Blevins struck out David Newhan to end the eighth and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save. He allowed four hits over nine scoreless innings in the postseason.
"Blevins has been unbelievable for us," DeFrancesco said. "He got us through the Salt Lake series. His innings-to-strikeout ratio is unheard of. He's got great stuff and composure."
"He's lights-out," Knox added. "I call him 'Randy Johnson.' He's tough as nails."
Sacramento scored its runs in the fourth. Jorge Piedra walked, Jeremy Brown blooped a single to right and Brant Colamarino delivered an RBI double.
New Orleans followed with two costly errors. Brown raced home when Brian Stavisky reached on shortstop Hernandez's miscue before Gregorio Petit lined an RBI base hit to left for a 3-0 advantage. Stavisky came home when Kevin Melillo's sacrifice bunt was thrown away by Zephyrs starter Jason Vargas.
Sacramento beat Tucson on Sept. 1. to clinch the PCL Pacific South Division. It was the sixth division title in eight years for the River Cats, who went 81-60 in the regular season. After winning back-to-back PCL championships in 2003-04, they endured a drama-filled endured a drama-filled first round with Salt Lake and fell into a two-game hole.
Sacramento battled back, but DeFrancesco said he can't compare this season's nail-biters to his previous league titles. He has guided the River Cats to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.
"You can't compare every one, you're just very lucky to get back to them," he said. "For them to do this the way they did it, down 0-2, that's something we're very were proud of."
DeFrancesco, like his players, credited the hometown fans for the season-long support.
"It's pretty special out there, you can feel the electricity," he said. "We had fireworks, we had introductions, we had ThunderStix. The adrenaline was flowing and I knew we had the edge from before the game even started."
"There must be something very special in Sacramento," Rickey added.
Vargas (1-1) gave up four runs -- three earned -- on six hits and two walks and struck out three in six frames.
DeFranceso said Shane Komine, who went 5-12 with a 4.87 ERA during the season, will start Tuesday's game.
"We're going out there and playing one game," DeFrancesco said. "Anything can happen."