It took all 142 games of the Eastern League season, but a 7-3 win at Portland on Monday afternoon clinched the circuit's final playoff spot for the Reading Phillies. The East Division Wild Card winners will take on division champion Trenton in a best-of-5 semifinal series beginning Wednesday.
Reading needed a win or a New Britain loss to wrap up the Wild Card berth. The Rock Cats closed out their season with six straight wins but were unable to catch the R-Phils, who finished three games behind first-place Trenton.
"Obviously we've swung the bats well all year," said manager Dusty Wathan of his Phillies club, which led the league in hitting. "But we've been a good team the whole way around, getting good starting pitching and playing great defense too.
"We got key contributions from guys like Adam Morgan and Ethan Martin late after we lost Jonathan Pettibone [to Triple-A Lehigh Valley]. And there are guys like Darin Ruf and Troy Hanzawa who have been solid all year."
The Phillies took an early lead in the first inning as leadoff man Tyson Gillies singled up the middle and later scored on designated hitter Jake Fox's two-out home run. It was the fifth homer the 30-year-old Fox has hit in 17 games with Reading this season.
The Sea Dogs roared back with three runs of their own in the bottom of the first, with Marquez Smith clubbing a two-run shot and Travis Shaw scoring on a Christian Vazquez groundout.
It was all Phillies the rest of the way, however. Reading tied the game on a Hanzawa sacrifice fly in the second, then pulled away with runs in the sixth and eighth before tacking on two insurance runs in the ninth.
After the rough first inning, Reading starter Morgan (4-1) settled down to record his fourth win in six Eastern League starts. The left-hander, a third-round pick out of Alabama in 2011, allowed three runs on nine hits and a pair of walks over 5 2/3 innings. He struck out five to reach 169 for the season, which puts him third in the entire Minor Leagues.
The R-Phils bullpen retired all 10 batters it faced, with Kyle Simon pitching 2 1/3 perfect frames and closer Justin Friend working the ninth. Though not a save situation for Friend, the scoreless inning dropped his ERA to 0.23 in 37 appearances covering 38 2/3 innings with Reading this season.
Eastern League MVP Ruf, who began the final day of the season leading Omaha's Wil Myers by one longball for the Minor League home run title, went 1-for-5 with an RBI and three strikeouts. He finished the campaign with a .317 batting average, good for second in the league behind Altoona's Brock Holt (.322).
Wathan, who managed Ruf in Clearwater in 2010 and 2011 before both joined Reading this season, praised his slugger.
"He's a great player and a great person who really works his tail off. I've never seen anything like the stretch he had last month -- it seemed like he could do no wrong." Ruf hit 20 homers and drove in 36 runs in 31 August games for the Phillies.
Fox and right fielder Leandro Castro drove in two runs apiece for the Phillies while first baseman Tug Hulett contributed a triple and a double.
Smith did the bulk of the damage for the Sea Dogs, going 3-for-4 with the two-run homer.
Portland reliever Chris Martin fell to 3-6 after yielding one run on two hits while pitching the sixth and seventh innings.
The Phillies are in the playoffs for the third time in four years. They lost in the first round -- to the ultimate champions -- in both 2011 and 2009. Reading's last championship came in 2001, when it shared the title with New Britain.
Reading edged Trenton in the season series, seven games to six.
"I think we match up well against them," Wathan said. "We've played each other a lot, going all the way back to Spring Training, and they've got a good club. It should be a lot of fun."
Wathan, in his debut season in Double-A, returns to the postseason for the first time since guiding Class A Lakewood to the South Atlantic League crown in 2009. A former catcher, Wathan played in one game for Reading in 2007, his final season as a player.
Lake Elsinore 5, Inland Empire 2
Bakersfield 7, Rancho Cucamonga 4
Needing a win and a Rancho Cucamonga loss to take the second Cal League South Division Wild Card spot, the Storm got just that. Tommy Medica and Robert Kral homered and Matt Branham (8-3) picked up the victory after allowing two runs on six hits in his five innings.
Lake Elsinore claimed the playoff spot with High Desert already clinching the first- and second-half South Division titles. Lancaster -- the Storm's opponents in the circuit's opening series -- owned the first Wild Card spot. Box score
Wisconsin 6, Burlington 1
Wisconsin 8, Burlington 3
Peoria 6, Kane County 2
The Bees' magic number was down to one to claim a Western Division Wild Card spot, but the A's affiliate didn't win either game of its doubleheader. It took Peoria's victory over Kane County to push Burlington into the playoffs. Box score