Borealis Turn Table on Florida, Grab PEBA Crown

Updated: July 10, 2015

by Francis Ferry, NLN baseball beat writer 

November 6, 2021: Jacksonville, FL – The fans, and a couple of the players on the Aurora Borealis, had seen this picture show before. Although it had been 11 hard seasons – and only two members of this team remained from that squad, the failure to bring home the Rodriguez Cup after the 2011 season – dropping the last two games, at home, to Florida, when they needed but a single win to clinch the title, remained stuck in their craw – even after winning the 2019 championship.

As blogger Ray D. Enzé has pointed out eloquently in his post-season recaps, we have seen this act before. Except this time, the Borealis were not interested in repeating history.

The F-heads, though, were not interested in going down without a fight. They got the crowd riled up during the pre-game festivities, as they had 2011 unexpected hero Taisuke Endo throw out the first pitch, no doubt an attempt at building some positive karma within the cozy confines of Farmer Field.

Did ‘Tugboat’ have one more stellar start in his arm?

Could ‘Little’ Gato push the series to a Game 7

In a series in which four of the first 5 games were decided by 1-run, the Florida fans – and smattering of Aurora fans who had managed to grab a high-priced ticket from scalpers, entered Farmer Field expecting nothing but the same as ‘Tugboat’ and Gato faced off in a rematch of game 2 – an Aurora 5-4 win.

And tight is what the crowd got, right out of the gate. Gato opened the game retiring the Borealis on 3 pitches, while Florida managed but a single and a walk over their opening 3 at-bats.  Then in the 4th, Kimball led-off with a single, followed by Petersen grounding one up the middle, which Foster grabbed, awkwardly throwing ‘Pork & Beans’ out at first on a fine play, then grabbing his side. The trainer ran out and after several minutes of examination, out ran Juan Toro to replace ‘Gypsy’ at second.

Foster, who’s offensive numbers were disappointing in 2021 (after a fine 2020 season), was starting in this series because of superior defensive play, after giving way to Toro earlier in the playoffs as a result of Toro’s better offensive numbers. ‘Gypsy’ John was diagnosed with an oblique strain – the same injury that took Matt Ferrell down in game 2, and Foster was declared out of any possible game 7.

Medina would promptly bounced one up the middle, which Giles had no other play than to first as Kimball took third – an extra base that at the time was huge, as the next pitch got past Scott Vinson, scored a passed ball, and Florida was on the board.

Rivera, who played on the 2011 team, failed early, but the SL batting champ was huge in the series

Toro would single in the 5th, and Ferringo would lead-off the 6th with a single and find himself standing at 3rd with 1-out, but neither River Pope or José Rivera would get him home. As Tony Velázquez strolled to the plate to begin the bottom of the 6th, the tension in the crowd was thick, as the expected pitchers duel was well underway and had the look of going the distance. ‘Would 1-run be all we need?’ was the question on most minds as the oddly quiet crowd looked on.

As it turned out, 1-run was not going to cut it – at all.

‘Tugboat’ had been a dominant force for Aurora from the beginning of the post-season – more than proving Will Topham’s decision to deal for the veteran left-hander as being a sound one. But it had been a long season for everyone and it clearly looked like the ‘Tugboat’ had finally run out of gas, for things suddenly went downhill – and fast!

Velázquez singled, followed by Kimball who already had a couple of huge RBI hits this series. He struck a 2-run homer to hand Gato a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead. But Florida wasn’t done. Petersen singled, Medina singled. Tom Wickersham singled home ‘Pork & Beans’ and Florida headed to the 7th with a commanding 4-0 lead – sending Randy Smith to the showers and Aurora fans into discussions about Provost v. ‘Moon Dog’ in the series clinching finale.

Perhaps those fans were a bit too quick to abandon this day’s game, as Aurora had already proven a propensity to score runs late in the game. That had scored 24 of their 64 post-season runs (37%) in the 7th inning or later – a greater percentage than during the regular season. Five of their eleven post-season wins  had been clinched in the 7th inning or later. Giving up on the Borealis would prove to be a bad thing.

And score they would. Giles led-off the 7th with a double, and a 1-out Carlisle single brought home Aurora’s first run. Toro, after working the count full, would pick-up his second single in Foster’s stead, and Vinson would single Carlisle home, and then Ferringo would load the bases with a slow-rolling infield hit. Florida fans had their hopes up on a groundball to short that looked to be an inning-ending double play, but the speedy Mike Hale would beat out the relay – allowing Toro to score. Suddenly, a 4-0 deficit sat at 1-run.

Felix Peña, who took over for Smith, pitched out of a little jam in the 7th, striking out Jorge Martínez and Kimball before getting Petersen to fly out, preserving the 4-3 score and giving Aurora a chance to keep the late inning bats rolling.

Florida brought in Martínez and Brunelle as defensive replacements, but mysteriously – after a rough 7th, Florida manager John Ramey chose to keep Gato in the game. Arguably the biggest decision in the series, as after the shaky 7th inning, The ‘Little Cat’ showed that, like his Auroran counterpart, he, too, had hit the wall.

Rivera led-off with a single, followed by a Giles single, and by the time that António López was ready in the Florida bullpen, Mike Britt had doubled them home to give Aurora their first lead in the game at 5-4. A lead that Koki Kojima would have to rely upon his inconsistent bullpen to hold.

Koki would start the inning with Gerardo Rivera, who got Medina to pop out, then Kojima would play the odds, going righty-righty, lefty-lefty, with John Gray coming on and promptly giving up a pair of singles – getting the silenced crowd re-invigorated, before putting Ju-chan Park down on strikes. The ‘Stork’ came in to face Arthur McKenzie, who drove one deep into left, but Pope was able to chase it down to end the inning.

So the game moved to the 9th, a 1-run affair – as most of this series was, and Florida’s closer Matt Benham came on to keep it close as the F-heads season was possibly down to it’s last three-outs. But Benham failed to do so. Ferringo singled on a 1-1 pitch, then Josh Ligonier – a forgotten man on the Aurora bench, was sent up to pinch-hit for Hale, and he doubled on a 1-1 pitch, sending Ferringo to third. Pope was walked to load the bases and set-up a force at the plate. The move looked to have merit when Rivera popped one up behind second. Wickersham went back, Albert Oliveira came in, but it dropped – Ferringo scoring, and when Oliveira couldn’t pick it up cleanly, Ligonier scored and Aurora had some insurance as Bryant Burris was warming in the ‘pen.

Elizarraraz and Major would close the inning out for Florida, and there was Burris – Aurora’s career save leader and 6th All-Time, striding in from the bullpen for the biggest save of his career – with a three-run cushion. He’d end up having to earn it the hard way, as Aurora fans have come to love (hate?).

Burris, the only other member of the 2011 team – Was he to be Hero or ‘Ice Cold’ this time?

‘Smooth’ would lead-off and work the count full, before grounding out. Martínez, the late inning replacement, would also work the count full before driving one into the deep right-center field bleachers, and in the process cutting Aurora’s lead to 2.

Ray Kimball came to the plate and as he hit a ball deep into left, fans across The Front Range had fingers in their mouths, nails chomped to bits as Wilson Mercado – Mike Hale’s not-so-defensive replacement, glided back to get the ball at the track. Two down. With a big sigh of relief, Aurora saw ‘Pork & Beans’ come to the plate without the possibility of tying or winning the game against Burris – as had happened in two previous encounters; one won by Petersen, the other by Burris. Petersen would win this battle as he drove the ball deep into center and off the wall, coasting into second with a double.

Three deep balls brought pitching coach Thomas Williams to the mound. Florida still had a life, and visions of Taisuke Endo and the 2011 collapse danced in fan’s heads.

Things would get more nerve-wrecking as Medina worked a full-count walk and suddenly Tom Wicksham walked to the plate as the winning run. Wickersham, the rookie who had 8 hits in the series and 4 RBIs, had 8 HR on the season – making the possiblity of heart-break a definite reality.

But on this day, history would not repeat itself. Wickersham would tap one out in front of the plate, and Burris would make the easy, sure throw to first to get the slow moving second-baseman. He turned and Scott Vinson was there, throwing his arms around him in a victorious hug as the entire team ran towards the mound and a dog pile ensued – with no ‘Moon Dog’ in sight!

Aurora had advanced to the PEC for the fifth time in League History, and it was the fourth time under the tutledge of their young GM and his theater-chain owning father. After two disappointing attempts at a title – the heart-break loss in 2011, and being swept-away by Charleston in 2014, a second title in three seasons is sweet indeed.

Ten of the position players and seven of the pitchers out in that dog pile were with the team two seasons ago as they celebrated at the one-time home of the one-time Connecticut Nutmeggers. Many of those players received contract extensions as a reward for their season, and after failing to repeat in 2020 – much less make the playoffs, it was thought that those decisions may have been misguided.

But as these players stood giddily on the platform, post-game, to receive the Rodriguez Cup, no one could question those moves today – and those that followed, that led to the Borealis hoisting the Cup for the third time in team history – more than any other team in PEBA history. For José Rivera (9-26, and a hit in every game of the series) and Bryant Burris (despite losing game 1, would have 3 saves), it was a special day of redemption, for they are the only players left from the team that watched Florida celebrate at Northern Lights 11-years ago. As they like to say – whoever they may be, turn-about is fair play.