In the end, it was the best hitter in the Pacific Coast League who finished off the Tacoma Rainiers in September.
Reigning PCL most valuable player El Paso’s Hunter Renfroe hit the game-winning, two-run home run off Rainiers reliever Al Alburquerque in the eighth inning, lifting the Chihuahuas to a 5-4 victory Saturday night at Cheney Stadium.
The Chihuahuas won the best-of-five playoff series, 3-1. It was the first time since 2009 that Tacoma had lost in the opening round of the postseason.
For whatever reason, the Rainiers had not only struggled to score runs in this series — they had tallied just one run in their past two playoff games entering Saturday —it has been this way for much of the past month.
Before the game, Tacoma manager Pat Listach pointed to the heart of his lineup — infielder Mike Freeman, first baseman Dan Vogelbach and designated hitter Stefen Romero – as what needed to ignite the Rainiers’ attack in the do-or-die game Saturday. They came in hitting a collective .167 (7 of 42) in the previous three games.
Vogelbach drove in two runs Saturday, including the first one with an RBI groundout to give the Rainiers a 1-0 lead in the first inning. He later added a run-scoring single in the third.
And Romero hit the team’s first home run of the series — a solo blast off reliever Jason Jester in the fifth inning — to extend Tacoma’s lead to 4-2.
Rainiers starter — 14-game winner Joe Wieland — did enough to get his team to a decisive fifth game. He gave up two earned runs in six-plus innings.
Wieland nearly got out of the seventh inning, inducing a grounder by Manuel Margot to third base for what would have been the final out.
But third baseman Zach Shank threw wide right of the bag for an error. Carlos Asuaje followed with an RBI single to right field to end Wieland’s night.
With two runners on, and two outs, Alburquerque struck out former Rainier Patrick Kivlehan on three consecutive pitches to end the inning. Tacoma still led, 4-3.
That changed an inning later on Renfroe’s blast, which cleared the grasp of left-fielder James Ramsey by inches and landed over the fence and in the bullpen area.
Tacoma’s best opportunity to regain the lead came in the eighth inning. Romero and Rob Brantly each hit one-out singles. But El Paso’s Bubby Baumann struck out Ramsey, then Phil Maton came on to do the same thing to Tyler Smith.
Earlier Saturday, a frustrated Listach called a rare team meeting to remind his players how they reached this point.
“I had been thinking about it for a while,” Listach said. “Our backs were against the wall. I just to give them a reminder that we were in first place from the first game to the last day of the season, and that we’ve been consistent.”
The Rainiers handed out their team awards before the game Saturday: Romero was named offensive player of the year; Daniel Robertson was named defensive player of the year; Cody Martin was selected pitcher of the year; and Robertson, David Rollins and Kevin Munson were appointed co-winners of the community service award.
The Rainiers open the 2017 schedule on April 6 at Sacramento.