ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (August 7, 2011) – The Sanford River Rats defeated the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs 7-5 to become the 2011 FCSL Champions at Tropicana Field Sunday night.
Just 15 days ago, the Rats fell to last place after a loss to the Winter Haven Loggerheads. Sanford went 9-4 in the ensuing games, fighting their way to the top.
In just 72 hours, the Rats went from being one strike away from the end of their season to league champions. Austin Liput (USC-Upstate) lined an RBI single up the middle to keep the River Rats’ playoff dreams alive Thursday night.
Sunday’s game was basically the two-month season compressed into nine innings of baseball that lasted just under three hours.
“They played until that 27th out,” River Rats Head Coach Stephen Piercefield said. “They’ll give you a little bit but they’re going to take a lot. They were able to absorb the punches early in the game, keep grinding out at-bats, scrape a run here and there, and it all adds up in the end.”
Winter Park threw a haymaker in the first inning as Ted Blackman (Coastal Carolina), B.J. Zimmerman (Tampa), and Austin Chubb (Florida Southern) all took walks before Michael Danner (Polk State College) hit a bases clearing triple. Danner then stole home for a seemingly devastating early 4-0 lead.
“They’re a fantastic ball club,” Piercefield said of Winter Park. “This entire league is very competitive and they are a tremendous team with a great pitching staff and offense and we really had to try to limit their offense and scrape for whatever we could.”
The Rats got within one in the top of the third. James Ramsay (South Florida) hit a sacrifice fly to right field to score Devon Hellett (Flagler College). Ian MacGeorge (Embry-Riddle) singled to plate Ryan Brnovich (Saint Leo University) before coming home on a wild pitch to make it 4-3.
Winter Park scored their final run of the game in the home half of the third inning when Alex Cruz (Georgia Tech) came home on a single from Patrick McGavin (Alabama). From there, it was a matter of whether or not the Rats could fight their way to the top of a 5-3 deficit.
Justin Pickens (Stetson) and the rest of the Rats’ bullpen played their part to perfection, combining for six shutout innings and allowing the offense to scratch their way up. Pickens allowed the last run before winning pitcher Adam Albers (Saint Leo University) came in for 2 2/3 innings, striking out four, walking none, and allowing just two hits. Adam Maxon (Jacksonville) closed the game and earned a save with his no-hit, no walk ninth.
“The guys always believed. They always believed in each other, they believed in themselves, and it carried us all the way here and we were able to come up on the right end tonight,” Piercefield said.
Sanford again came within a run in the fifth. Alex Mendez (South Florida) led off the inning with a double and the Rats stuck to their approach of whatever it takes to move runners over. Brnovich laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Mendez to third before Ramsay singled for his second RBI of the game as Mendez came home for a 5-4 game.
“I can’t be any more proud of a group of guys,” Piercefield said. “They were able to make themselves team players. Whatever it took to get on, get over, and get them in, they did it. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys.”
Ramsay let someone else record an RBI in the seventh after blasting the ball to the left-center wall for a stand-up triple. MacGeorge hit a sacrifice fly to right field to move Ramsay the final 90 feet to tie the game.
For his work, Ramsay earned MVP honors. He finished the night with three RBIs, a run scored, a single and a triple.
“Two weeks ago I wasn’t even thinking about [being MVP],” Ramsay said. “We were thinking about just packing up our stuff and going home but our coach believed in us and we kept at it. Because he believed, we all believed. It’s all up to the coach and ours is the greatest ever. I thank God every day that he’s our coach.”
“I told these guys at the beginning of the year it didn’t necessarily matter what I knew, it was going to come down to them and these guys played their hearts out every single day,” Piercefield said. “I’m speechless with trying to think of adjectives for each and every one of these individuals. They are fine young men who will succeed in whatever they do.”
With the game tied heading into the ninth, the team that didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “quit” came to bat with the top of the order. Mendez led off with his second double of the game followed by a Brnovich base hit, both on the first pitch from Winter Park reliever Brad Renner (Hillsborough CC). Ramsay came to bat with Mendez once again 90 feet from a score, and once again came up with an RBI, this one on a sacrifice fly to right field, for the go-ahead run. Does Ramsay know what “quit” means?
“No, and our coach doesn’t either,” he said. “Once we got to the bottom of the eighth, Coach Piercefield said ‘You know what? We got this.’ And we did, we accomplished our goal.”
TJ Gavlik (North Florida) singled to score Brnovich for the games final run. Maxon threw 11 pitches for a three-up, three-down bottom of the ninth and the Rats were, incredibly, the champions of the Florida Collegiate Summer League. In each of the two seasons Piercefield has been the skipper for a team in the FCSL, his teams have gone away as the victors, winning in 2008 with the Clermont Mavericks and most recently today with the River Rats.
“There might have been teams with more talent, but nobody had more heart than us,” Piercefield added.
Neil Tredray (Valencia College)