But against a lot of odds, the Crushers battled back from being 10 games under .500 and needing two wins without the team’s best player, Andrew Davis, and punched their ticket to the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Alas, there won’t be a Cinderella run to a championship this time around.
The Crushers hung with the Joliet Slammers on Saturday night, but their undermanned roster could only muster three hits and were swept away with a 5-2 loss in front of 1,910 fans at All Pro Freight Stadium.
“I’m usually not one for long goodbyes, and I don’t even usually talk to my teams after a loss like this,” Crushers manager John Massarelli said. “But I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of good teams. However, this was as special a group of players that I’ve ever had, and this is one that I’ll always remember.
“I thanked them for that and I congratulated them on a fantastic close of the season.”
The Slammers, with their three-game sweep, will play in the Frontier League Championship Series later this week against either the River City Rascals or the Southern Illinois Miners. The Slammers, like the Crushers in 2009, are an expansion team.
Davis missed all three playoff games with an infected toe. He had to have surgery on the toe a few days ago and was at the game on crutches and out of uniform.
He and veteran infielder Jodam Rivera – out with a cast on his broken hand – were sorely missed.
“We were going into a gun fight with a big knife,” Massarelli said. “But I give these guys credit. They gashed them a little bit. They didn’t walk over us at all. We fought with them hand-to-hand. We pitched with them. But we just didn’t have enough ammo.
“Missing Davis and Jodam would be like if the Yankees went into a playoff series with the Red Sox without (Derek) Jeter and (Alex) Rodriguez. That’s how important those two guys are to our lineup and what we were able to do this year. But to the guys’ credit, they never let them affect them.”
Joliet’s Jeremy Tietze took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, eerily reminiscent of the no-no thrown by Joliet’s Andrew Moss at The Freight in July. However, he and four other relievers combined to walk nine Crushers, keeping Lake Erie alive most of the night.
The Crushers’ best chance came in the bottom of the seventh when they loaded the bases on two walks and an infield single down the third-base line by Kyle Boe with one out.
Jereme Milons hit a solid shot to the gap in right-center field. However, center fielder Josh Flores was able to run it down for the second out, although Brian Erie was able to tag up on the play to make it a 5-2 game.
Reliever Billy Petrick came back to strike out Patrick Norris looking to end the threat.
“That shot that Milons hit with the bases loaded, if that finds a gap it’s 5-4 with Milons on third with one out,” Massarelli said. “But that’s baseball. Give Joliet credit though. They came in and did what they were supposed to do.
“We were struggling with injuries and they came in and matched us on the mound. And that’s what you have to do to win in the postseason. They got quality outings in all three starts and limited our opportunities.”
Kellen Kulbacki, who led the Crushers this postseason with a .300 average, drove in their first run in the sixth on a sacrifice fly to center. He also had their final hit of the season – a one-out single to center in the bottom of the eighth.
The Slammers got to Josh Roberts (0-1) with two runs in the first inning. Roberts gave up six hits in four innings, but was able to avoid any further damage.
Joliet got to reliever Travis Risser in the fifth with back-to-back RBI singles by Kyle Maunus and Brandon Peters. Risser got out of further trouble when Erik Lis tried to tag up on a fly out to Boe at second base, and Boe threw out Lis on a bang-bang play.
With Chris Allen on in relief with one out in the sixth, the Slammers tried a suicide squeeze with a runner on third and one out. However, Flores popped the bunt up behind the plate, and not only did Joel Collins catch it, but he threw down to Evan Sharpley at third for the inning-ending force to escape the jam.
Ruben Flores, in his final outing as a Crusher, retired the side in order in the eighth and ninth. He struck out the side in the eighth and finished with four strikeouts.
“We definitely came together over the last month-and-a-half of the season,” Flores said. “I knew we had the talent, the ability, the drive, the desire. We just needed to come together as a team. We finally did in August.