(GAME DATE – Oct. 6, 2019) — The Ohio Oxen have made a triumphant return to the playoffs, after missing out in 2018, with a series win over the New York Dragons in the Lake League Elimination Round of the 2019 Bull League playoffs.
In their last playoff appearance, in 2017, they had an ignominious early exit in the first round after the Rimouski Fighting Moose downed them in 4 games, despite Ohio having had the best record in the LL that year at 60-40, and coming off a Bull Cup championship year in 2016.
This year’s playoffs were not looking favorably for the Oxen either, up against one of the strongest defensive teams in the LL, the Dragons, who ranked 2nd in the league for starter and bullpen ERAs, and 4th in defensive efficiency.
The New York offense was no push over, either, featuring former Oxen infielder Alec Tricity who led the team in batting with a .326 average, and was just 3 shy of 100 RBIs. The Dragons also boasted CF Tony Cruz, no stranger to the post season and winner of an MVP award in 2010. Cruz led the team in home runs with an impressive 39, driving in a team best 108 RBIs. Four other batters contributed 20 or more home runs, although one remained on the DL by the time the series started, another poached Ohio player, Matt Port, who suffered a wrist injury two days before the end of the season.
Only Ohio and Minneapolis scored more runs and hit more home runs than the Dragons, but of those two, Ohio had distinctively shakier pitching during the season, which is how they ended up the 1st wild card, seeded 3rd against the LL East division pennant holders New York, who finished 94-68 on the season.
The Dragons rotation featured Ricky Naugler (20-7, 3.35) and Steve Rollins(18-9, 3.20), a one-two punch that seemed sure to keep Ohio on the ropes for a short series. But that would not be the case.
Despite falling 8-2 in the series opener, Ohio battled back and answered with an 8-4 victory over the Dragons in Game 2, tying the series. Both games were not short on long balls and 3-run innings.
The series then moved to Cincinnati, where the Oxen took the Dragons into extra’s and a huge walk-off single by Rod Cubit to score Corny Maise all the way from second base gave the Oxen the 5-4 victory in the 10th inning.
A day of rest and the teams were back at it in Ohio again for game 4, with the Oxen now leading the series 2-1. But then the skies broke open and the Dragons rained fire on the Oxen, running up the score 7 runs before Ohio even got on the board. Ohio feebly tried to answer, but could only manage a pair of runs, including a Tyrone O’Saurus solo shot, his 3rd homer of the series. The Dragons kept up the onslaught however, and the final tally was 14-2 for the visitors, evening the series and sending it back to New York.
Rusty Rowe, Ohio’s own 20-win hurler, made the start in game 5, and allowed just 1 run before making an early exit in the 4th inning due to a sore thumb on his throwing hand. The ball was turned over to Nick Pruitt, who struggled but held the Dragons to just 2 more runs in the 4th, on a triple by Dragons CF Tony Cruz. Pruitt held on to stay in control over the next three innings, allowing no more Dragons runs. A steady drip-drop of 1-run frames tied the game for Ohio, including 2 RBI singles from Ohio RF Dave Bird.
With game – and the series – tied, it went into extra innings for the second time in the series. Bird was huge again in the top of the 10th when he took Dragon’s closer Herb Steward shallow to right field, a fly ball that twisted into foul territory and was caught by Dragons RF Victor Jimenez. David Jones, who pinch hit for SS Orlando Barreda and had singled to lead off the 10th, was on third base and tagged up easily on the Bird fly out, scoring the series winning run.
The Ohio bench erupted onto the field in celebration, as the underdogs took the series in dramatic style. O’Saurus was named series MVP for his trio of home runs and 4 RBIs to lead the team.
Rowe’s diagnosis turned out to be day to day, along with closer Marty Melvins, who also exited early from game 5. The Oxen will now play the 100-win Ravens, who earlier swept the Nomads in 3 games.