By PAUL GOTHAM
On a day when the game’s first out came as the result of a rare runner’s interference, Aldaberto Mejia made routine work of his second MLB rehab appearance.
The end to the 2017 Rochester Red Wings season, though, will go down as anything but ordinary. Staked to a three-game lead and a magic number of two less than 72 hours prior, the Wings find themselves on the outside looking in at International League playoffs.
Losses Saturday and Sunday to Pawtucket coupled with a Lehigh Valley four-game sweep of IL-North leading Scranton/Wilkes-Barre ended the Wings postseason hopes.
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” Rochester Mike Quade said after the Red Wings 10-1 win over Pawtucket in the 2017 season finale. “It wasn’t about yesterday’s game. It’s just the nature of a must-win game. If you’re not a little nervous. If you don’t lose a little sleep, if you don’t run that stuff through your mind, you’re not very good at what you do.”
That the Wings were in position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013 seemed improbable at best earlier in the campaign. The Wings trailed Lehigh Valley by 12.5 games on June 15th when the IronPigs held the top spot in the IL North. That same day, Scranton had an eight-game lead in the Wild Card race.
“I’m proud of the guys and the way they finished up.”
Finish they did. Matt Hague connected on two home runs, and Levi Michael collected three hits to pace a 12-hit offense. But the Wings needed Lehigh Valley to lose and for a brief moment after the completion of Monday’s contest that seemed possible.
“If you would have told me they’d sweep Scranton, I’d be very surprised,” Quade said. “I guess after clinching, Scranton took a few days off.”
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre loaded the bases in the ninth at Coca-Cola Park and with one out the league’s best hitter, Jake Cave, came to the plate. Cave struck out. Billy McKinney followed with a ground out. Lehigh Valley beat the RailRiders, 4-3. Ironically, Rochester native Cito Culver was left stranded at third with the tying run. With that the Wings season ended.
“I’ve been in three or four of these at the major-league level where it’s winner take all or you have to win on the last day,” Quade said. “It’s so cliché, but how could it possibly come down to the last day? I’m looking at the major-league chase for the wild card. It’s going to come down to the last day. It’s pretty amazing that it does that. I think you can make the case that if we found a way to win a couple days ago, it wouldn’t have come down to the last day.”
Mejia put the Wings in place to win. With the wind stretching the flags in left field, Mejia needed just 61 pitches to get through five innings.
“Mejia was really good,” Quade noted. “I’m talking about a brutal day to pitch. The wind blowing out and this park can play big but not today.”
Facing a Pawtucket lineup with eight right-handed batters, the lefty allowed one run on six hits. His two walks came only to Jeremy Barfield – the Paw Sox slugger who had hit round trippers in four straight games including a titanic shot off the Dunkin’ Donuts sign in deep left center on Saturday.
“He moves the ball around very well,” Quade said of his starter. “Ultimately, he’s got good stuff. It’s about command. He never gives in. He’s willing to pitch inside. If you don’t pitch inside to right handers and let it hang out over the plate all day, you’re going to have trouble.”
Hague triggered the seventh with his ninth home run of this season. Six batters later, J.B. Shuck connected on his fourth home run of the year, a three-run shot to right field. In between, Leonardo Reginatto plated Michael with a two-out single.
Rochester led 9-1.
Hague connected on another solo shot, his 10th of the season, in the eighth. With two hits, Hague finished atop the IL with 149 – the fourth time he has led the league in that category.
“It means you were in a lot of Triple-A baseball games,” Hague said smiling. “It’s one of those things that I’m definitely happy to do it.”
Hague led the league in hits in 2011 and 2013 as a member of the Indianapolis Indians and again in 2015 with the Buffalo Bisons. No other player has led the IL in hits in more than two separate seasons.
“What a year Matty had,” Quade commented. “Maybe not the power numbers the year we saw him at Buffalo when he killed us, and I wasn’t a fan. He’s been the most consistent guy. He’s been healthy all year. He always comes to the ball park ready to play.”
The Wings finished the season 80-62 tied with Lehigh Valley for the third best record in the IL. The IronPigs held the advantage in head-to-head play to earn the Wild Card spot. Durham (86-56) won the IL South and Indianapolis (79-63) the IL West clinched spots in the postseason by winning their separate divisions.
“Part of our deal is to win ball games and put on a good show for the people here in Rochester,” Quade noted. “The other part is to contribute and help wherever you can with players at the big-league level. God, I think I’m the only one that didn’t go the big leagues this year. We sent a lot of people there.”