SIOUX CITY — Chasing a league championship for 27 seasons since their inception, the Sioux City Explorers baseball team is now three wins away from finally pulling it off.
And, as the best-of-five American Association championship series gets under way Wednesday at Lewis and Clark Park, the opponent for this historic matchup remained a mystery when this edition of The Journal went to press Tuesday night.
It’s a strange scenario to be sure after thunderstorms Monday night in the Twin Cities forced a postponement in the deciding game of a best-of-five semifinal between the North Division’s (and the entire league’s) top two teams -- the St. Paul Saints and the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks.
St. Paul, the division champion by a one-game margin over the RedHawks with a league-best 64-36 regular season record, had the home-field advantage in the finale of a series that had seen the home team sweep the first four games. That meant the Saints had to battle back after losing the first two games in Fargo, bowing 3-2 last Wednesday and 4-3 on Thursday.
St. Paul stayed alive with a 6-4 triumph on Saturday and then had a walk-off 1-0 victory with a ninth-inning run in Game 4 on Sunday to force the Game 5 showdown.
The Explorers, meanwhile, finished off Kansas City’s South Division champs in four games, capping off three wins in a row with a 5-2, 13-inning marathon Sunday night at Community America Ballpark.
There was a little poetic justice in all of this, of course, considering Kansas City won a semifinal over last year’s X’s, whose 71-29 record was nine wins better than anyone else in the 12-team Association. And that it was actually Kansas City, 62-38, that converted that second best mark into a postseason championship.
With only six holdovers from that 2018 team, manager Steve Montgomery put little stock in a revenge motive. However, it was definitely on the mind of third baseman Jose Sermo, whose two-run triple sparked the three-run 13th inning rally that propelled Sioux City into just its fourth chance at championship ring.
“It’s kind of hard when you’re playing in the playoffs, trying hard to win -- especially playing the team that beat you last year,’’ said Sermo, who drove in a team-leading eight runs in the four games with the T-Bones after ranking fourth in the league with 77 in the regular season. “Last year, we had a better record, so we were a little bit (overconfident). We let our guard down. We didn’t want that to happen.
“Every pitch counted, every at-bat, every inning. (The T-Bones) didn’t seem to do that and that’s why they’re going home and we’re going to the championship.’’
After being named the league’s player of the year last season, Sermo struggled in the postseason, going just 1 of 17 in five games against the T-Bones. This time around, he was 6 of 16, second best on the team behind the other holdover star, Nate Samson, who went 8-for-18 after leading the league in hits for the third time in four years (he shared the honors in 2016).
The Explorers went 2-4 against St. Paul this season and also 2-4 against Fargo-Moorhead, a close second to the Saints for the league’s best record, finishing the 100-game schedule at 63-37.
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Putting together the best regular season mark, however, doesn’t get you a trophy and the Explorers found that out the hard way in 2015 and again last year.
It’s important to note, actually, that nine of the 13 league champions the American Association has crowned since its inaugural 2006 campaign have not been the regular season leader in wins. So, that’s an anomaly weighing in the Explorers’ favor.
Ed Nottle, the X’s original field manager, told me years ago that nothing was more important than simply reaching the playoffs, getting that foot in the door and then hoping things happen to come together at the right time.
Montgomery’s fourth playoff team in five years earned that opportunity the hard way, even though a 57-43 record (now 60-44 with playoffs included) was relatively modest.
It wasn’t so modest, though, when you factor in the way the season started. The Explorers lost eight of their first 10 games and were just 9-16 after the first one-fourth of their schedule. They finished off that slate going 48-27 over their last 75 dates, reeling off 12 wins in a row at one point to match a later Kansas City winning streak for the league’s best all season.
There’s little or no doubt the T-Bones wouldn’t have won the division without a schedule that gave them 15 contests against the woeful Texas AirHogs, a team the Explorers faced only nine times. Kansas City went 14-1 against the Hogs while the X’s were 8-1.
“The guys were just defiant,’’ said Montgomery. “They just found a way. It’s surreal really.’’
Eric Karch, the former closer who moved into the starting rotation this season, gets the ball for Game 1 Wednesday at 7:12. He is coming off his best performance of the season, hurling eight innings of four-hit, shutout ball last Thursday, when the X’s bounced back from a 12-8 first-game loss to rout the T-Bones 11-0.
The Game 2 starter is expected to be Pete Tago, a former first-round draft pick by the Rockies who was picked up midway through the season and went 6-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 11 regular season starts.
Then, after a travel day Friday, Montgomery plans to go with Taylor Jordan, a starter for parts of three major league seasons with the Washington Nationals. Jordan allowed just five hits and one run while working the first 6 1/3 innings in Sunday’s four-hour and 48-minute battle of wills. It was the Explorers’ second longest game of the year, coming just one week after losing 6-5 on this same field in another 13-inning game that lasted six minutes longer.
Which reminds me: Before this wonderful old game loses any more fans, it’s time to don the thinking caps and figure out ways to speed things up just a bit.
Whoever shows up in the visitors’ dugout Wednesday, it will be rather refreshing after a crazy schedule and then the playoff matchup had Sioux City playing 14 of its last 20 games against the T-Bones.