It's been a homecoming of sorts for Ryne Sandberg this season, and on Monday, soaked after a day of rain and a clubhouse celebration, the Hall of Famer couldn't be happier.
"This is my third time witnessing something like this," said Lehigh Valley manager Sandberg, "and it doesn't get old."
Sandberg and the Triple-A IronPigs finally had a chance to let loose Monday when a rain-shortened 4-1 win in Syracuse became official. The IronPigs, a team that never had a winning record until this season, are headed to the International League playoffs.
"We went into the clubhouse and we had to wait about 30 minutes to make sure it was legit," said Sandberg. "It's a long season, we've been together for five months. We had good support from our veterans along with my staff -- celebrations like that never gets old."
Lehigh Valley struggled to reach the .500 mark for all of its brief history since joining the league in 2008, so the thought of reaching the playoffs this fall might have elicited some "when pigs fly" remarks.
On Monday, no airborne swine were needed -- just Nate Bump and some timely rain in upstate New York. Leading after five frames, 4-1, the game was halted due to continuing rain and a soaked field. Sandberg said puddles had already formed on the infield, so the teams retreated after hearing even heavier downpours were inbound. Once the game was officially called by the umpires, the Wild Card playoff berth was set.
Boasting a "Bring Home the Bacon" postseason theme, the IronPigs will host Pawtucket for two playoff games beginning Wednesday.
For Sandberg, the successful season is no surprise. The legendary second baseman was beloved as the skipper in Triple-A Iowa last year, but Chicago went another route when it came to replacing the retired Lou Piniella this winter. Sandberg had Major League hopes, but when the Phillies -- the team that drafted him in 1978 -- offered him the job in Allentown, Pa., he jumped.
"It's very satisfying, it's been very comfortable for the get-go," he said. "The organization drafted me out of high school in '78, I spent all my Minor League seasons with the Phillies, so going back has been comfortable. And it's a great organization to be with, it's top notch from top to bottom and it all starts at the top with the way the Major League club is playing. It all filters down through the Minors with a similar concept and goal."
Entering the day, the IronPigs needed a win or a loss from the Gwinnett Braves in order to clinch. Lehigh Valley also could have clinched if its game or the Braves' game was rained out. (Gwinnett's game was indeed called after three innings, hours after Lehigh Valley won.)
Bump (5-0) held the Chiefs to a run on five hits over five innings. Erik Kratz put the IronPigs up in the third with a sacrifice fly, but Chris Curran tied it for Syracuse with an RBI single in the bottom of the frame.
Brandon Moss hit a go-ahead RBI single in the fifth before Kratz followed with an RBI double to left. Moss drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth, and with the game official, it became a matter of waiting out the league-mandated rain delay -- no tarp was pulled.
"It's been a very good season, we have a real good thing going in Lehigh Valley with the fans' support. They're the top draw in Minor League Baseball at just under 10,000 fans a game on average," said Sandberg. "It's an outstanding facility. The group of guys that the Phillies put together by signing them to not only help this year, but be a good insurance policy for the Major League club. A number of our players have been called up and contributed."
Sending help to Philly is alone a great accomplishment for Sandberg, but he's still got a competitive team on the field thanks to new faces emerging within the Phils' system.
"We started off the season with a veteran group, but as we went on, we were able to bring up some young prospects from Double-A that earned the right. Phillippe Aumont throws up to 98 mph has been outstanding out of the bullpen. Justin De Fratus throws in the mid- to high-90s and has turned into a closer. Freddy Galvis, he's just 21, he was voted by the organization as the Phillies' Minor League Player of the Year. He hit .300 for us for a month and he is outstanding shortstop," said Sandberg.
He was also impressed with Joe Savery, Philadelphia's top pick in 2007 who was an Eastern League All-Star as a starter in 2009, changed positions to become a hitter last season and changed back to pitching earlier this year. He's 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 18 outings for the 'Pigs.
"Joe Savery has done real well for us out of the bullpen," said Sandberg. "Cody Overbeck hit about .280, and as the season went on, prospects moved on and some joined us and we didn't miss a beat. It's been very a gratifying run to watch."
As for Pawtucket, Sandberg said the Red Sox are familiar to his group. He's ready for the opportunity.
"We know them very well. They're in our division so we play they a lot, so we're looking forward to going head to head with a very good team," said Sandberg, who confirmed that veteran Dave Bush will start in Game 1. "It's been a challenge all year, and we'll be challenged once again, but we're looking forward to it."