The Quad Cities River Bandits had amassed a 6-0 playoff record to this point in the 2011 season. They needed one more win against the Lansing Lugnuts to secure their first Midwest League championship since 1990.
A crowd of 2,425 was on hand, which would have been fairly small by regular season standards. However, the playoffs in the minor leagues are a tougher sell. This was the second highest attended game of any in the MWL playoffs. The atmosphere was one of the best I’ve seen at Modern Woodmen Park. The fans were loud and into the game and wanted to see them win a championship. The fans were also encouraged to wear black, to match the jerseys the Bandits would be wearing, and most people did.
Trevor Rosenthal was the starting pitcher for the Bandits. He was coming off a complete game shutout in the previous round. That scoreless streak ended quickly though as Rosenthal allowed a double to Michael Crouse, and the Lugnuts got him around on a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly in the top of the first inning.
The Bandits immediately came back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first inning. Kolten Wong led off with a single. Oscar Taveras and Cody Stanley also singled. Intermixed were some productive outs that moved up the runners.
They used the same formula in the second inning. This time Colin Walsh singled before being advanced by productive outs. Then Wong drove him in with a single. The Bandits now led 3-1. In the bottom of the 6th, Geoffrey Klein hit a solo home run to put the Bandits up 4-1.
Rosenthal settled in and did now allow another run until the top of the 7th. He exited the game after allowing two hits to start the seventh inning. Those runners would come around to score. Rosenthal’s final line was: 6IP, 5H, 3R, 3ER, 2BB, 7K. The Bandits’ lead was cut to 4-3.
In the bottom of the 7th inning, Wong led off with a walk. He was sacrificed to second by Ronny Gil. Then, Oscar Taveras was intentionally walked. Jonathan Rodirguez drove in Wong and Taveras with a double. The Bandits now led 6-3 and the championship was six tantalizing outs away.
The score would stay 6-3 until the top of the 9th inning. Dean Kiekhefer was once again brought in to close out the game as he had done several times already in the playoffs. Things got tense in the top of the 9th. He walked two batters early in the inning to bring the tying run to the plate with one out. He got Crouse to flyout for the second out. Jake Marisnick then singled to load the bases. Now the go-ahead run was at the plate. Marcus Knecht made everyone’s heart stop
beating for a moment when he lifted a fly ball to left, but it ended up being a fairly routine fly ball for Colin Walsh to end the game.
Unsung Hero Of The Season: Manager Johnny Rodriguez
The job done by Bandits’ manager Johnny Rodriguez may have been underappreciated. The more I followed the team, the more it was clear he had the trust of all his players and they wanted to win for him. The featured image at the top of this post says it all.
It’s probably easy to overlook minor league managers. They don’t have to deal with the same level of media scrutiny and also don’t have the same kind of pressure to win as an MLB manager. However, it is arguable that the job is tougher in a number of ways for a minor league manager, especially at the lower levels like this.
First, they don’t have a whole team of coaches to help them. They typically have a pitching coach, hitting coach and trainers. That’s about it. Other specialist coaches will show up to work with players from the parent club sometimes. The bulk of the coaching though is on the manager.
Second, minor league managers have very young players to coach. There are players as young as 18 or 19 that are not only working to move up the ranks of the minor leagues but in many cases they are also adjusting to living on their own for the first time. If they are from a foreign country, they may have language challenges and all the other cultural challenges that come with that. Rodriguez did a great job with Oscar Taveras who had all of these challenges facing him.
Finally, there are all the “normal” challenges of being a minor league manager. They have to ride the bus around the country with their players to all of these games. They have to coach third base! They have to fill out the lineup and know when to make pitching changes. Looking through these box scores made me appreciate how good Rodriguez was at lineup and pitching changes.
Rodriguez was recognized by the Cardinals, too, when he moved up to manage the Palm Beach Cardinals the following season. He’s still in the Cardinals’ organization. He managed the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn League this season.
Final Thoughts On the River Bandits’ 2011 Season
This was the most fun I had to that point following the River Bandits. You just had a feeling they would find a way to win every game, especially the last month or so of the season and playoffs when they really got on a roll. We got to see them play in Busch Stadium in May. My wife and son got to go on the field during the Home Run Derby, and we got to host the MWL All-Star Game. We also won a suite for a game, which was the first time I got to see a game from a suite in this ballpark. Then of course there was the memorable playoff run. In the following years we’d get to see so many players from this team make it to the major leagues and become regular MLB players, if not stars. Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Kolten Wong, Oscar Taveras, and Seth Maness. I’ve even enjoyed seeing some of the role players make it to the majors like Greg Garcia, Colin Walsh, Cody Stanley, and Dean Kiekhefer. Oscar Taveras’ tragic death was heartbreaking, and I wrote about there in this post.
Here are some more photos of the celebration from the Quad City Times: