Aurora Boreffic!!!

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Updated: July 18, 2016
All The News Fit For The Front Range

All The News Fit For The Front Range

by Francis Ferry, NLN baseball beat writer

aurora_borealis_2023November 6, 2023: Jacksonville, Florida – Last November when the Borealis defeated Arlington for the 2022 Rodriguez Cup, the team matched a feat that only the Bakersfield Bears of 201617 had achieved – back-to-back titles. Those Bears would see their quest for a ‘three-peat’ squelched by the 2018 Reno Zephyrs in their attempted rise to the pinnacle. The 2023 Aurora Borealis would not be deterred in their efforts to reach that goal.

In a season that had mirrored the previous two, this year’s squad would start slowly – although they had a winning mark at the end of June, and sat in a playoff position (the last wildcard), they were 6 games back of Shin Seiki and the coveted top spot in the SL.

Britt MIA early in the playoffs, ends up PEC MVP

But a stellar July and solid August/September – despite the scourge of injury, left the Borealis with that top mark – an accomplishment that may have been bigger than any imagined when Mike Britt went down with 10 games left – with hopes of returning early in the SL Alliance Championship – should Aurora make it that far.

And make it they did, and despite losing their opening game to Duluth in the Divisional Series, Aurora demolished the Warriors in five games. Aurora would lose the first game of that Alliance Series to Crystal Lake – in heart-crushing fashion, but Britt would return in Game 3 and become an integral piece of a stunning 3-1 comeback – sending the Borealis to the PEC and a shot at the League’s first ‘three-peat’.

‘Sawmill’ started strong in his chance to be the clinching game winner.

Martín Francisco would take the mound for Aurora with the team looking at a chance to ‘sweep’ the series – not literally, as the team would have lost the first game of the series – as they had in each playoff series this year, but in a more technical manner as the Borealis would win the next three games to set up this Game 5 match-up with ‘Moon Dog’ York – the Borealis looking to sweep all three games in Jacksonville.

The rookie Medrano turns hero in his biggest game of his career

‘Moon Doggie’, as George Crocker has continually referred to him as, needed to be his best. On this day, he was anything but. River Pope greeted York’s first pitch by lining it down the right field line. Pedro Ferringo would single, followed by a single off the bat of Paul Carlisle to score Pope and by the time Britt would chug into second with his own, bases-clearing double, York was down 3-0 with out recording an out. Nick Giles would accommodate that, grounding out to second, but Chris York’s nightmare would just get worse as Pablo Medrano hit a deep ball into straight away left for a 2-run HR and Aurora would take a 5-0 lead to the bottom of the first – hoping that ‘Sawmill’ would be good enough to hold a 5-run lead.

Francisco would give up a leadoff single to Andy Sharp, but then he’d quickly coax three fly balls to get out of the inning. Then Aurora was at it again: Ferringo with a one-out, swinging-bunt single, whom Carlisle would triple home – sending Chris York to the showers after just an inning-and-a-third. John Becker, this years ‘feel good’ story and the odd man out in Florida’s decision to go with a rotation of just three starters – a move Aurora broadcaster Mark Gunter termed ‘dangerous’, relieved York and saw Britt hit a sac fly to plate Carlisle and tack a final, 7th, run to ‘Moon Dog’s poor performance. Aurora, though, was not finished for the inning as Nick Giles would crush a 3-1 pitch to dead center – 416 feet away, and the Borealis would lead 8-0.

‘Sawmill’ would throw a quick 1-2-3 inning in the bottom of the second – looking to be in full control, while Becker would struggle more in the third, loading the bases before he was able to get out of the inning. Any hope of Martín Francisco having an easy night was quickly dispelled in the bottom of the third as Raúl Medina would homer to lead off for Florida. Millard Anderson would follow that with a single, and after ‘Sawmill’ got Sharp to fly out, Jorge Martínez cleared the fence in right with his own homer and suddenly Aurora’s 8-0 lead was cut to 8-3. ‘Sawmill’ looked like he was ready to right himself – striking out Burton on 4-pitches, but Kimball grounded a ball in the hole for a single and Crocker – the Dave version, would line a ball that would skip past Mike Hale in center for an RBI double and Aurora’s big lead was suddenly halved and with 6 innings to play, we had a ball game.

Indeed. More so than anyone could imagine.

Becker would stay in for Florida to finish two more innings, his only mistake being a 3-2 pitch that got too much of the plate with Britt up – that ended up in the bleachers, upping the lead up to 9-4. Forrest Major would relieve Becker in the 6th, and keep the Borealis at bay, while Francisco looked sharp in the 4th and 5th with a pair of perfect innings – and carried that into the 6th – where after getting the first two outs he inexplicibly walked Lorenzo Amador, and then Pablo Rodriguez. ‘Sawmill’s loss of control was so sudden that Aurora’s empty ‘pen needed to jump to life as pitching coach Thomas Williams ran to the mound to give Ryan Holbrook a chance to warm-up. That seemed to work, as Francisco fired in strike one – though it did seem Medina was taking all the way, but when strike two arrived at the plate he lined it down the line for a run scoring double, plating Amador and ending ‘Sawmill’s night.

This night was much like the previous three post-season starts for Martín Francisco,  where he averaged 5 runs allowed. Where as Aurora would lose two of those – Game 4 to Crystal Lake and the Opener of the PEC, on this night he left the game with a 4-run lead. For the fans, after a quiet 7th inning in which both teams walked a batter – to no harm, the 8th inning was just about to make this game a whole lot more interesting.

Junior Castillo came on for Florida and his first batter, Mike Hale, would uncharacteristically crush a ball to dead center to up Aurora’s lead to 5 at 10-5. That’s when Aurora’s sometime-erratic bullpen would implode. Crocker would line a double to left of the ‘Stork’s first pitch – seemingly rattling Holbrook as he would walk Amador on 4-pitches and then after Rodriguez would fly out on a 2-0 pitch that was up, he would walk Medina to load the bases and end his night.

On would come ‘Massacre’. Arturo Jiménez, who had lost his job in the rotation, only to take it like a good soldier and pitch excellently out of the ‘pen, came on in a tough spot, and instantly looked like he might get Aurora out of the jam. Anderson dribbled a ball out front of the plate – Rusty Butler jumped out to grab the ball and in his attempt to dive back to the plate to make a play on Crocker, he dropped it for an error – the run scoring and the bases remaining loaded. Andy Sharp was up next and he laced a ball over Hale’s head – it looked like he may have had a shot, but it was hit too hard. Sharp coasted into second with a double, Anderson to third and two-runs were in and suddenly the score was 10-8, with the F-heads threatening more.

And more they’d get. Martínez would lace one in the gap towards left-center, that Pope would chase down – a sac fly that could have been the last out – but made it a 10-9 game. Danny Burton would work Jiménez for a walk – his 3-2 pitch missing somewhere, causing the already frustrated ‘Massacre’ to groove the next pitch to Kimball that he raked for a 2-run double and suddenly a 6-run rally gave Florida an 11-10 lead – and an 8-run comeback!

Adrian Peterson marched in from the bullpen – nearly perfect in his last 7 innings: 5 hits and no runs allowed, looking to force the series back to The Front Range for Game 6. Needing just a run, Aurora had their best HR threat up first – Mike Britt who hit a ball deep into right field that looked like it had a chance, but Martínez made a fine over the shoulder catch near the corner for the first out. Nick Giles followed and swung for the fences, but nubbed it out past the mound to Wickersham, whose flip to first just beat Giles and leaving it up to Pablo Medrano.

Medrano began the year at AAA, where he hit just 1 HR in 61 games. In his 88 games since his call-up to the Borealis, he managed one – a 2-run shot off of Markus Hancock of all people. Drafted in the 25th round of the 2020 draft, out of Rutgers, he had hit 10 homers that season, giving the Borealis that he may have a little pop – but that really hadn’t materialized. On this day, it would show. ‘Javelin’s 1-0 pitch was taken to straight away centerfield – over Anderson’s head and over the wall for a 2-out, game-tying homer that emptied the Aurora bench and left the Florida crowd stunned. It left Aurora with a chance to end it here.

Ron Latour, the erratic Canadian rookie reliever – signed last year as a free agent, came on in relief to start the ninth. Latour’s regular season ERA may have been 5.59, but in 7.1 post-season innings, he had allowed just 4 H and 1 unearned run – picking up the win in Game 3 against the F-heads. He would quickly dispose of Amador and Rodriguez before Medina would battle him through a 10-pitch AB to earn a walk. Not bothered by the tough at-bat, Latour showed great composure and got Millard Anderson to fly out to end the inning.

For the second time in the series, the teams would need extra innings to decide the game, but unlike Game 3, this one would be quick.

Peterson was determined to keep his team in the game and he came out like a man on a mission. Crisp fastballs to Butler as he hit a meek grounder to short. Mike Hale struggled to catch-up to the fastball, prolonging his at-bat by barely nicking a couple of pitches before striking out and turning the order over to the top and River Pope.

Pope, the 2023 SL Batting Champ (.354), started the season slowly – on May 6 he was hitting a meager .206, but by the All-Star Game he was up to .295, finishing with .318. If Aurora has a player who is the definition of a professional hitter, it’s River Pope. Pope had been having an excellent series and he wasted no time lining a fastball right back up the middle, past ‘Javelin’ for a hit. Pedro Ferringo – another guy who just seems to hit, patiently took a pitch as the normally aggressive Borealis continued to play that way as Pope stole second on ball one. Ferringo waited for his pitch and on a 2-1 pitch he drove a ball in the gap in right-center, Pope scoring easily and Ferringo ending up at third with a triple – putting Aurora up 12-11.

With a fatigued Bryant Burris in the dugout, Latour came out to close the game – and series for the Borealis, by facing the top of the Florida line-up. Andy Sharp would bounce one back to Latour for the first out. Jorge Martinez would give his team – and the fans who had since been silenced by Ferringo’s assassin blow, by bouncing a ball up the middle for a single. Instantly Aurora Manager Octávio Ríos and Pitching Coach Thomas Williams began conferring – Burris glaring down the bench, begging to go in, but Aurora’s not so much a rookie manager now, stuck with Latour.

Latour proved that his manager’s faith was worth it – striking out Burton on three pitches. Two outs and up came Mark Holmes, a 9th inning defensive replacement for the otherwise dangerous Ray Kimball – but Holmes would keep things interesting by bouncing a ball up the middle as well, with Martínez and the tying run heading to third. That brought up Tom Wickersham with a chance to tie or win the game.

Wickersham would waste no time, lining a ball towards the gap in center, but Hale easily got to it, gloved it and the Aurora Borealis had done it – in quite the unconventional manner, they had won their third straight Rodriguez Cup – and their fourth in five years (not to mention their fifth overall).

Butler dashed to the mound and was jumping about with Latour in a bear hug. The bench had mobbed the mound in a dogpile that included everyone but a weakly grinning Gunner MacGruder who wandered the periphery, no doubt wondering what it would have been like to be on the mound and contributing to the title.

As the high-fives and hugs subsided a cluster of players gathered out by second base, all handing this day’s hero – rookie Pablo Medrano, their cell phones as they posed for a group photo: Britt, Giles, Hale, Pope, Juan Toro, Burris, ‘Sawmill’, ‘Stork’, and Provost – the nine players who were on the 2019 title team; the nine players who now will be sporting a handful of rings – one for each finger, leaving them to begin dreaming as the Pittsburg Steelers once did back in ‘81 – ‘One for the Thumb’.

How improbable has this run been? Four titles in five years? How about four different managers? Don James had managed the club for four seasons when Aurora won the title in 2019, only to find himself fired – ‘let go’ after the 2020 season. Koki Kojima was promoted for the 2021 season – his only season at the helm of the Borealis, and after the lifting of the Rodriguez Cup, he demanded lifting a hefty pay raise and his greedy demands led to the (accepted) challenge to GM Will Topham, to manage the team – which he did, bringing home the 2022 championship. The grind of ‘double-duty’ being too much for the ‘Boy Wonder GM’, little known Octávio Ríos was brought in for this season, and… well… we know how that story ends. For now, at least, we know that Ríos is under contract for 2024.

And so the last page of the 2023 season has been turned, and the future is both stable and uncertain. The PEBA has plans for a shifting financial future – a new, mega-tv deal is on the horizon. Hints of Rio Grande Valley folding – and who knows what other teams may be teetering on the edge. Mike Provost has a contract that is expiring after the coming season. But the team, as a whole, will be returning – with the 2024 Opening Day line-up looking just like the one that walked off the field holding the Rodriguez Cup high in the air.

But the future is for tomorrow. For today, Aurora was Terrific. No. they were Borerrific!!!