Blame those Auburn Doubledays. Or give them credit. They simply would not be denied.
The season's first three games were symbolic for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, who chased Auburn the entire season only to fall short in the New York-Penn League playoff race.
Mahoning Valley (46-30) opened the season with three games at Auburn. The Doubledays swept the series and went on to capture the Pinckney Division crown, which wasn't decided until the last day.
"Those three games against us set the tone early in the year," infielder Bryce Uegawachi said. "If we just would have won one ..."
The Scrappers kept pace with Auburn throughout the season. The Doubledays, however, were so hard to catch that Mahoning Valley held first place for only 10 days -- and even that seemed like a lot.
The race was so tight that it wasn't decided until the final day, when the Scrappers beat Jamestown 15-2 and needed Auburn to lose at Batavia.
To no one's surprise, the Doubledays, despite trailing 5-1, rallied for a 6-5 10-inning victory that ended Mahoning Valley's season, preventing it from reaching the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"This has been one of the most enjoyable summers in professional baseball, with the character of this club," said Scrappers manager Chris Bando, who commuted each day from his home in Solon.
"We've got a number of guys who you're going to see wearing an Indians uniform some day," he said. "This is a special group of guys."
Before the season, Bando predicted that his team's offense would be the strength. In the end, he was right.
The Scrappers finished as the league's second-best offensive club with a .258 batting average, behind Williamsport's .271.
Without question, outfielder Ben Francisco was the Scrappers' offensive engine.
"Without a doubt he's the most valuable player in the league," Bando said. "Without Ben Francisco, we don't do what we've done. His first game he had four hits, and he never stopped from there."
The former UCLA standout recovered from a broken collarbone by winning the league's batting title with a .349 average.
"It was my first taste of professional baseball and to have a good year like I did, it's just been awesome," Francisco said. "Mentally, toward the end of the season, I got used to it."
Francisco was supported in the lineup with the talented bats of Brian Wright, Bill Peavey, Shaun Larkin, Jeff Haase and Eider Torres.
Wright showed signs of his days at North Carolina State by leading the Scrappers with 47 RBIs. Peavey will one day put up bigger numbers (.279, 6 HRs, 41 RBIs), but the big-bodied first baseman from USC gave us glimpses of his power.
Larkin, of Cal State Northridge, led the Scrappers with nine home runs, while Cleveland State's Haase (.277) came up with clutch hits. A late addition to the roster, Torres, a 19-year-old from Venezuela, batted .307 in 75 at-bats.
"We saw the offensive potential there," Bando said. "The only question mark was our pitching."
But several pitchers stepped forward to stabilize the Scrappers.
Most impressive was left-hander Victor Kleine, a third-year player from Florence, Ky., whose nine wins were second-most in the league.
"I was talking to my dad a few weeks ago, and we both thought it was finally time," Kleine said. "It was frustrating the first two years because you expect good things. It finally came, and it's a matter of keeping it going now."
Kleine (9-3, 3.80 ERA) made major improvements, showing the organization his ability after a 1-8 record in 2001. He also benefited from more run support this season.
"I've felt more comfortable this year mechanically," Kleine said. "I wasn't worried about picking at hitters, just going at them and throwing strikes."
First-year players Keith Ramsey (6-3, 2.04) and Brian Slocum (5-2, 2.60) provided key outings late in the season to keep the Scrappers in contention.
"The starters did a good job, and we had some relievers develop," Bando said. "We just came up short in our bullpen. We patched it together and fought to the end."