The Thunder Bay Border Cats tried to play spoiler on Sunday, but came up two runs short in their 2014 regular-season finale.
Ryan Howard homered to key a five-run first and Paul De Jong added his record-tying 20th blast in the seventh, propelling the visiting Wisconsin Woodchucks to a 9-7 win, a victory that clinched a spot in the postseason.
DeJong was well aware of where he stood, knowing he was one shy of former Mankato Moondog Shaun Cooper’s 2011 long-ball mark.
“It’s awesome. I had 10 in the first half and 10 in the second half, that’s consistency. I wanted it, so I went out and got it,” said the Antloch, Ill. native, a draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates who plans to return to school this fall rather than turn professional.
But while the record was nice, DeJong said it wouldn’t have meant much if Wisconsin’s season had come to an end. The Woodchucks entered play in the driver’s seat, needing a victory to clinch a playoff berth. The Woodchucks and Kenosha Kingfish were in a heated battle, separated by half a game in the race for the best overall record in the division, Lakeshore having already won the first- and second-half titles. Kenosha did their part, drubbing the Battle Creek Bombers 8-2.
However, the fate of both squads was still in the hands of a Wisconsin team seeking its third NWL title, but its first since 2003, the Border Cats first year in the league.
“We knew if we won we’d be in for sure, so all we had to do was come out here and play our game and do it well,” DeJong said. “We made it close, but we ended up pulling it off.”
Border Cats outfielder Cory Kay, who had two hits, two walks and scored a run in his final game in a Thunder Bay uniform, said they wanted to go out with a win and perhaps keep their opponents from realizing their playoff dream.
It just didn’t work out, he said.
“It would have been nice to spoil another team’s thing, but they played hard and had a great season and they deserve to go to the playoffs,” Kay said.
The Woodchucks (24-14) were all over Border Cats starter Michael Daley (L, 1-6) in the first.
They put two quick runs on the board before Howard stepped up with two on and drove an 0-1 pitch over the wall, the three-run shot giving Wisconsin starter Brian Howard (W, 3-1) an early 5-0 cushion.
Blair Beck doubled home another run in the fifth and came home on Howard’s second hit of the contest, stretching the Woodchucks lead by two and bringing Daley’s night to a merciful end.
The Cats struck back with three of their own in the bottom half of the inning, Rob Paller and Cory Kay credited with RBI singles. Paller would score on a wild pitch.
Down 9-4 in the ninth, Thunder Bay tried to make things interesting with Ryan Zweck trying to close out the victory for the Woodchucks.
Jordan Serena pulled the Cats to within a pair with a single that scored Tyler Patterson and brought the winning run to the plate after Paller walked.
But reliever Austin Tribby settled down, striking out Christian Correa and retiring Tyler Rolland on a routine ground ball to short to end the threat and the Border Cats campaign and earn the save.
Thunder Bay finished the second half at 9-28, their 23-49 overall mark narrowly leaving them a game up on Alexandria as the worst record in the Northwoods League.
Cat tracks: Border Cats manager Brad Jorgensen said he’s already started selling 2015 season tickets and has every intention of bringing the team back next year … The attendance Sunday at Port Arthur Stadium was 847, giving them a 669 average for the season … Manager Johnny Hernandez expressed an interest in returning next year, but said family obligations might not make it possible.
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