Playing in the opening game of a three-game series against the Springfield Cardinals, and needing just one win to clinch the Texas League North Division second half title, the Tulsa Drillers took care of business Saturday night. Despite trailing 5-2 going to the bottom of the eighth inning, Tulsa found a way to rally. The Drillers plated three runs in the eighth to tie the game before scoring the game-winning run with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the second-half title at ONEOK Field.
The Tulsa comeback began with one out in the eighth when pinch-hitter Peter O'Brien worked a walk off Springfield reliever Corey Littrell. Errol Robinson then followed with a two-run home run over the left-center field fence to bring the Drillers to within a run of the Cardinals at 5-4. That prompted Springfield to bring in Landon Beck to try and protect its slim lead. But that would not be the case.
Yusniel Diaz greeted Beck with a single up the middle that was fielded on a dive by Springfield shortstop Tommy Edman. But Edman made a poor decision as he misfired on an ill-advised throw to first, sending the ball into the Drillers dugout to advance Diaz to second. Matt Beaty then delivered the game-tying single with a base hit to center to knot the game at 5-5.
After Karch Kowalczyk and Michael Johnson teamed up to keep the Cardinals off the scoreboard in the top of the ninth, the Drillers finished the job in the home half of the inning.
Drew Jackson was hit by a pitch to start the ninth before Johan Mieses grounded a single to left. Jackson advanced to third on the play while Mieses moved to second on the throw to third. That would be all for Beck as Eric Carter was brought into the game with runners on second and third and no outs.
Carter was able to strike out Garrett Kennedy for the first out of the inning before Springfield decided to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Blake Gailen to load the bases, trying to set up a double play. But that move backfired as Robinson came through again with a grounder up the middle that the drawn-in Springfield infielders could not make a play on, driving in Jackson from third with the winning run.
The late Tulsa heroics were required as it was the Cardinals who took the early lead Saturday as they scored first in the second inning. A pair of walks from Tulsa starter Dennis Santana opened the door for the Redbirds and they would cash in as Andre Knizner grounded an RBI single up the middle to plate the first run of the game.
Springfield added another pair of runs in the third on back-to-back singles that were followed by a throwing error on a pickoff attempt by Santana and a fielding error by Robinson, putting the visitors in front 3-0.
Photo by Rich Crimi
Tulsa got two of those runs back in the bottom of the third thanks to two, record-setting long balls.
Santana made up for his error in the top half of the frame as he launched a no-doubt homer into the back row of the Busch Terrace to bring Tulsa to within 3-1. It was the first home run by a Drillers pitcher since May 21, 2010 when Bruce Billings did the same in a game that was also played against Springfield at ONEOK Field.
Two batters later, Diaz matched Santana with a solo shot of his own to bring the Drillers to within 3-2. The pair of long balls were the 164th and 165th home runs of the season for Tulsa, setting the new single season franchise record. The previous record had been 164 homers hit by the 2011 Drillers squad. Tulsa currently leads all Double-A teams in homers and has the third-most in all the minor leagues behind only El Paso and Fresno.
The Cardinals added two runs in the fifth on an RBI single from Eliezer Alvarez and a ground-rule, RBI double from Edman to take a 5-2 lead. But the Tulsa bullpen trio of Shea Spitzbarth, Kowalczyk and Johnson shut the door over the final four innings, leading to the dramatic finish for the Drillers.
Johnson was credited with the win to improve his record to 7-1 on the year while Beck was charged with the loss for Springfield.
The victory means the Drillers will play in a best-of-five series against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, who won the first-half title, following the conclusion of the regular season. The winner of that series will advance to the Texas League Championship Series against the South Division winner for a chance to claim the 2017 Texas League crown. The Drillers have not won the Texas League Championship since 1998, good for the longest drought in the league.
Playoff tickets for the North Division playoff series will go on sale to the public beginning Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM. Fans can purchase tickets online at TulsaDrillers.com, in-person at the ONEOK Field ticket office, or over the phone at 918-744-5901.
The Drillers and Cardinals will play the second of their three-game series Sunday night. Springfield is scheduled to send out RHP Chris Ellis (5-9, 4.31 ERA) while Tulsa has yet to announce a starter. First pitch at ONEOK Field is scheduled for 7:05 PM with the finale of the back-to-back-to-back Labor Day Weekend Fireworks shows to take place following the game.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.