Mahoning Valley won its first New York-Penn League championship with a 4-2 victory.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
TROY, N.Y. -- Matt Knox knew exactly what was coming after he gloved the ball and tossed to first base for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers' final out of the 2004 season.
"I just knew I was going to get mauled," said Knox, a relief pitcher.
But he wasn't alone.
Mahoning Valley players piled atop one another after completing an improbable season Monday night, and lifting their first New York-Penn League championship trophy at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium.
Celebrate good times
The Scrappers' celebration lasted into the night, but first it started on the field with Knox dousing first-year manager Mike Sarbaugh with ice water and players spraying one another with champagne.
"It never gets old, I know that," said Sarbaugh, who also won the Eastern League title as a coach with Double-A Akron last season. "To make those decisions [as manager], it puts more pressure on you, but I enjoyed every minute of it and these guys made it that much better."
That celebration continued in the visitor's clubhouse, where players toasted an unforgettable season and laughed about the times they had.
Minutes earlier, the Scrappers had completed a sweep of the Tri-City ValleyCats with a 4-2 victory in the best-of-3 championship series.
"It was just one of those years," Sarbaugh said, "and they don't come around too often."
Keys to victory
With Sarbaugh's wife, Nicole, pregnant with their third child, the manager watched Justin Hoyman pitch his best game as a professional and the team's opportunistic offense capitalize on Tri-City mistakes.
A second-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians, Hoyman entered his first season with high expectations. He responded with his first win Monday by pitching five scoreless innings and giving way to a near-flawless bullpen.
While Hoyman provided the foundation on the mound, Brian Finegan did likewise at the plate.
The former University of Hawaii standout got the Scrappers' first hit, which came in the first inning, and he provided their first run on a sacrifice fly in the third that scored Teo Encarnacion.
"That was the biggest thing, just trying to get on the board early," Finegan said. "After my first at-bat, I saw the ball really well all night long, so I was pretty confident in what I could do in that situation."
Sarbaugh saw something special from Finegan, who finished with two singles.
"Seeing him on the bench before he got up there, he was like, 'Hey, I'm going to get on base and we're going to win this,' " Sarbaugh said.
But it wasn't until the sixth inning that Mahoning Valley primed itself for the win. In addition to Mike Butia's RBI single, the Scrappers scored twice on wild pitches for a 4-0 lead.
"That happens when you put pressure on," Sarbaugh said. "When you're up in a game and you have guys in scoring position, anything's possible."
Play of the game
That lead was made possible with a game-saving strikeout by Hoyman an inning earlier.
After the ValleyCats loaded the bases with two outs, Hoyman struck out Ben Zobrist, the league's top hitter, on a full-count pitch.
"That strikeout -- that's the game right there," Sarbaugh said.
"He never gets upset, he doesn't let situations bother him, he pitches his game," Sarbaugh added of Hoyman. "He's the guy we wanted out there. He was going to stay out there and get out of it, and he did."
Maybe the biggest unknown of the night came when Sarbaugh went to his bullpen, which had been inconsistent throughout the season.
Nelson Hiraldo, who had a 7.14 ERA during the regular season, retired the first seven batters he faced and hadn't allowed a run through three innings.
"When we scored, he came back out and shut them down, and that was a key," Sarbaugh said. "He pitched a heck of a game."
But in the ninth, Lou Santangelo, who hit a grand slam in Game 1 at Eastwood Field, hit a two-out, two-run home run to give Tri-City hope.
That's when Sarbaugh motioned for Knox, a reliable late-inning reliever, who induced Edgar Babilonia into the game-ending groundout and recorded the team's biggest save of the season.
The Scrappers were five games under .500 on Aug. 7, but they finished the regular season by winning 11 of their final 14 games to clinch a playoff berth. Monday's win was their seventh straight overall.
"It's unexplainable in baseball. There was something we found, and we exploited it and here we are celebrating," Knox said. "It's almost like, if you want to use a clich & eacute;, a Cinderella season."