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Riding the roller coaster in Kalamazoo


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POSTED: Sunday, June 14, 2009

The first three weeks of our season have gone OK. After a lackluster beginning, we have settled in to go 11-7, good for a first-place tie in the Frontier League's West Division.

As is the case with most early seasons, keeping ourselves in the heart of the race until we can hit a hot stretch will be key to our season's success. There have been some definite ups and downs in our 18 games, but one night in particular contained a whole lot of both.

Going into our three-game road series against the Kalamazoo Kings, the goal was to win the series. Having gone up to Kalamazoo several times over the past few years, I knew how hard it was for visiting teams to pull out any wins out there. A highly offensive ballpark to say the least, Homer Stryker Field is renowned throughout the league for its short porch in left, bumpy infield surface and wind-blown homers. But I doubt that anything could have prepared us for the ninth inning we saw in game two of our series.

We gave the series opener away, falling 6-4 as we committed two crucial errors that resulted in six unearned runs. Going into the top of the ninth in game two, we trailed 5-1 after another uninspired offensive performance.

But as always, the ninth inning in Kalamazoo was anything but boring. Up until that point in the game, there were no homers, and few fireworks. After two quick outs, our bats slowly came to life. After a couple of walks, a pitching change, a hit-by-pitch, a two-run single by our left fielder Jereme Milons, and a three-run homer to left, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on the happy end of a 10-run inning.

We took our 11-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth, with our closer Mike Phelps hot and ready to close it out against the bottom of the Kings' order. But things never seem to go as planned in Kalamazoo.

Kings left fielder Simon Williams led off the bottom of the ninth with a line-drive double to right-center after struggling against us all season. The next batter had been an out for most of the season series, but found a way to send a base hit up the middle. But still, with a five-run lead and our closer in, we just wanted to take an out at a time.

Amos Ramon, who played for me with the Windy City Thunderbolts in our 2007 championship season, followed with a gutsy 10-pitch at-bat that resulted in a double down the left-field line. So I went out to the mound and had a brief visit with Phelps and the infield about making quality pitches early in counts so our defense could get outs.

Next up for the Kings was their nine-hole hitter, who rolled a slow chopper toward our second baseman, who looked to get our first out. But a fine pick and an errant throw gave Kalamazoo another baserunner.

After an out and another hard-hit single, we had to make the change on the mound and go to our reliable set-up guy, Jake McMurran, a returning league all-star.

The first batter Jake faced was Tim Brown, a former Double-A slugger in the Padres system. Jake just missed on a couple of fastballs down in the zone and had to come over the plate with the next pitch or risk putting the tying run on base. The next three at-bats happened so fast, I doubt many in either dugout had a chance to even imagine what would transpire over the next 5 minutes.

As he should have been, Brown was looking for a fastball to hit and got it, sending a game-tying homer over the wall in right-center. Jake walked the pinch hitter who followed and then surrendered a game-winning homer to the next hitter, as we lost 13-11. It hurt to watch it. It was frustrating to see our fine ninth-inning rally go to waste.

But that's baseball. You win some, you lose some, but there's always another game tomorrow. And there was a tomorrow for us, and we won the series finale 5-3 before coming back home to Marion to take two of three from the Evansville Otters to pull back into a tie for first place.

To keep your sanity in this game, you must find the positives that come from every situation. The high point of our series against the Kings is that we won the season series, and we don't have to go back there the rest of the regular season.

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Brendan Sagara, who played baseball for Leilehua and UH-Hilo, is pitching coach for the Southern Illinois Miners.