COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. -- In 2004, the West Michigan Whitecaps had a 2-1 lead over the Kane County Cougars in the Midwest League Championship Series. The Cougars came back with a 16-inning marathon win in Game 4 before the Whitecaps finally took Game 5 to win the title.
On Friday night, West Michigan avoided similar drama by scoring eight runs over the first four innings en route to an 8-4 victory and its fourth Midwest League title in front of 4,014 boisterous fans at Fifth Third Ballpark.
"I'm speechless right now," said Cameron Maybin, who went 2-for-5 with two runs scored to bring his postseason average to .343. "Everyone wants to win a championship. My first year in pro ball and we got the job done. It's a great feeling.
"I'm going to enjoy this. I've got to go to (the instructional league) and then get ready for Spring Training. But I'm going to enjoy this for as long as I can."
It was the bottom half of the lineup that did much of the early damage. No. 6 hitter Will Rhymes singled twice, stole two bases, scored twice and drove in a run in his first three plate appearances. He singled in the sixth and eighth to finish 4-for-4.
"It was really big," said Rhymes, who had at least three hits three times this postseason and batted .382. "We talked about it before the game. They're a really good team and we didn't want to give them a chance in a Game 5. It felt really good to get a couple of runs and it kept rolling for us."
No. 8 hitter Mark Haske twice drove in Rhymes, with a double in the second and a single in the third. Cleanup hitter Matt Joyce followed Maybin's leadoff double in the third with a blast over the right-field wall for his first playoff homer.
Not that the offense needed to provide much as starter Erik Averill (1-0) tossed six scoreless innings. The lefty gave up five hits, walked two and struck out seven and did not allow an earned run in 11 2/3 innings this postseason.
"All you can ask for is run support," Averill said. "It's my job to go out there and throw strikes, trust my defense. It was awesome to get that run support."
The Whitecaps jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second. Rhymes singled off Kane County starter Ken Durost with one out before stealing second. After Pedro Kotto struck out, Haske doubled to left to plate Rhymes. Dusty Ryan, mired in a postseason slump, broke out with a double off the left-field wall.
West Michigan didn't waste time adding to the lead. Maybin's hustle gave him a double before Joyce followed with a titanic blast to deep right to make it 4-0. One out later, Rhymes singled to end Durost's night. Reliever Joey Newby yielded a two-out single to Haske that scored Rhymes (after his second stolen base of the game) and gave the Whitecaps a five-run lead.
Kane County blew an opportunity to score in its first at-bat. Chad Boyd led off with a single and Justin Sellers followed with a base hit. Jeff Baisley's groundout advanced the runners, but Averill struck out Anthony Recker before hitting Raul Padron to load the bases. But he retired Jose Pineda on a flyout to escape the threat.
The Whitecaps broke open the game in the fourth. Newby hit Michael Hollimon and Maybin reached on an infield single. One out later, Michael Hernandez, who drove in three runs in Game 3, delivered an RBI single. Rhymes followed with a sacrifice fly and Cotto's RBI single made it 8-0. The Whitecaps could begin tasting the champagne.
"We really had to fight it," Rhymes saiad of looking ahead to celebrating. "Once they got that grand slam, they were right back in it."
The grand slam didn't come until the seventh, when Averill was out of the game. After the opening frame, the Cougars advanced only one runner to scoring position against Averill. But they loaded the bases in the seventh against reliever Jose Fragoso.
Recker then sent a drive over the left-field fence for a grand slam, his third postseason homer and second in as many days. But it would prove to be too little, too late for Kane County, which has made the playoffs three times without winning a title since being declared champions in 2001.
West Michigan has won the title two of the last three years and four times since entering the Midwest League in 1994. Midwest League manager of the year Matt Walbeck has piloted his team to the playoffs in each of his three years here. Still, the former Major League catcher hasn't exactly gotten tired of watching the young players he's guided all season end the year celebrating on the field.
"That's why I do it," Walbeck said. "That's the feeling you look for. That's the goal you set. I really can't put it into words."