DURHAM, N.C. — When does a Game One have a Game Seven vibe to it?
The answer: When you’re participating in a single nine-inning affair that will determine the top Triple-A squad of 2012, which is what’s happening Tuesday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, site of the Triple-A National Championship Game between International League champion Pawtucket and the Reno Aces, the top team from the Pacific Coast League.
It’s a winner-take-all contest that will serve as the final minor-league baseball game of the season, at any level.
“This is for all the marbles,” Pawtucket starting pitcher Nelson Figueroa said Monday, shortly after the team’s batting practice session was cut short due to a quick-hitting rainstorm.
Added outfielder Jason Repko, “You would think it would be a series, but a one-game playoff, that’s the way they’ve done it. (It) should be exciting.”
The postseason survivors of the I.L. and PCL have squared off in a single-game joust in each of the past six years. Each side has three wins apiece.
Asked about how unique it is for a championship to be decided on the same day it commences, Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler responded, “It’s kind of tough. They don’t know much about us and we don’t know much about them. It’s sort of like an All-Star Game, but at the same time it means a lot for these players. We’ll see how it goes.”
Beyeler’s chief worry is shaking off any rust that’s surfaced since Pawtucket captured the franchise’s third Governors’ Cup last Thursday in Charlotte. “You could say that we’re well-rested and ready to go, but we haven’t seen live pitching and fielded live balls in a few days,” the skipper stressed. “You can’t stay sharp when you’re not playing, but on the flip side is that they’ve been able to get away from the game for a little bit so maybe they’re a little more recharged and refreshed coming in here like, ‘Hey, one-game gig and let’s go.’”
Somehow it seems fitting that Beyeler would give the nod to Figueroa, who certainly seems to be following in the footsteps of Derek Lowe circa 2004. You may recall Lowe was the winning pitcher for all three of Boston’s playoff series clinchers. If Figueroa succeeds Tuesday night, he too will go into the books as the Pawtucket’s victorious pitcher in all three of the team’s deciding tilts.
The 38-year-old Figueroa found out last Saturday that he would be getting the ball while Pawtucket worked out at Knights Stadium. The media notes that were distributed Sunday afternoon outlined that either Figueroa or lefty Chris Hernandez would match up against Reno rising star Trevor Bauer. Beyeler told the media that Figueroa would be the guy shortly before Monday’s workout.
“A one-game championship, I definitely wanted to be the guy with the ball and I think they knew that also,” said Figueroa, who’s quietly become the unofficial ace of Pawtucket’s pitching staff since coming over from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in late July. “For them to give me the green light is exciting and a tremendous honor.”
Certainly, Beyeler and pitching coach Rich Sauveur had plenty of options to consider. Billy Buckner hasn’t been in a game since Game Three of Pawtucket’s first-round series while Hernandez has been idle even longer. Zach Stewart and Steven Wright are two more names Pawtucket’s on-field brass undoubtedly kept in mind before ultimately settling on Figueroa and the seven wins he’s racked up since joining Pawtucket.
“We thought about a lot of different scenarios, but Nelson’s the one we decided to throw,” said Beyeler.
An Arizona resident during the offseason, Figueroa has kept close tabs on the 21-year-old Bauer. The right-handed Bauer has been on the fast track the moment the Diamondbacks tabbed him with the third overall pick of the 2011 draft. He quickly tore through Arizona’s system with this past June 28 serving as his MLB debut. He returned to the minors after four big-league starts and going 1-2 with a 6.06 ERA.
“Here we are at the opposite end of our careers,” noted a smiling Figueroa. “I’m going out there and everyone knows that you can throw the age out the window. I’m a kid at heart. He’s (21) and I’ll be maybe a year older.”
Reno manager Brett Butler says Bauer is unique in that he’s wise beyond his years.
“Here is a guy who was a mechanical engineer major (at UCLA) and has the in-tune understanding of his ability, his mechanics and what he’s trying to do,” said Butler, a former MLB outfielder who authored 558 stolen bases during his 17-year career. “He’s got three or four big-league pitches, one of which is a fastball that’s been clocked at 98. He’s got a good curve and a nice changeup he can throw at any time. The bottom line is that he knows how to pitch and he’ll be ready for (Tuesday night).”
EXTRA BASES: Even though the game is being played in an International League ballpark, the PawSox will serve as the away team. The reason: the Pacific Coast League defeated the I.L. in the Triple-A All-Star Game, 3-0, back on July 11 in Buffalo, N.Y. … For those who plan to turn the volume down on the NBC Sports broadcast and receive play-by-play information via radio, you’ll be hearing an additional voice. The regular tandem of Aaron Goldsmith and Steve Hyder still will be describing the action; it’s just that they’ll be sharing the duties with Reno’s Ryan Radtke. What’s expected to happen is that the PawSox’ duo and Radtke will switch off every couple innings, with the ninth inning reserved for the team that’s ahead. … The PawSox will host a Triple-A National Championship watch party Tuesday night at McCoy Stadium as fans are invited to view the game on the right-field video board. Admission is free. The Governors’ Cup trophy will make its first public appearance and fans will also have the opportunity to purchase the same t-shirt the players wore after capturing the I.L. crown. … A PawSox victory celebration will take place outside Pawtucket City Hall Thursday beginning at noontime. The fete represents a prime chance to pay tribute to the International League champs. … Former PawSox pitcher Mark Prior passed the following well wishes via email: “Congrats PawSox! Been following your progress through the playoffs. Great job, guys. Good luck Tuesday!”