Pitching has been the story for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers this postseason and that remained true tonight, as a solid start from Jacob Barnes and three innings of scoreless relief from lefthander Brent Suter gave Wisconsin the opportunity to take tonight's game to extra innings and win 3-2 on a walkoff wild pitch.
Barnes was the fifth Timber Rattler to pitch a quality start in as many games, and all five have led to Wisconsin wins. He pitched seven innings tonight and allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits, walking one and striking out two. Brent Suter, a 31st round pick in 2012, followed him to the mound and pitched three scoreless innings in relief to pick up his first Midwest League win.
"Let's just say my adrenaline was at an all-time high," Suter said. "It was great. It's always an honor to get called on in a situation like that, that's what you love as a competitor is to be in that situation with the game on the line in a championship series. So I'm very glad that the coaches had faith in me and just fortunate to come out with a win today."
Because the Wisconsin starting pitching had been so effective lately, Suter hadn't appeared in a game in more than a week. He only appeared in three games for Wisconsin during the regular season, but said he threw to fellow reliever Michael White on flat ground every day in an effort to stay sharp. He credited his running program and strength and conditioning coach Christian Polega for helping him stay in shape.
"He's a guy that really hold runners well, he's got a great pickoff move. But he came in, kept them off the board for three innings and gave us a chance to win," Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said.
Wisconsin finally pushed the winning run across in the bottom of the tenth inning when catcher Rafael Neda led off the inning with a single, advanced to second on a sacrifice, to third on a groundout and scored on Fort Wayne reliever Luis De La Cruz's wild pitch.
"The previous pitch was really close to being a wild pitch, so I was expecting something close. Luckily for us it happened, so I just saw it and went straight to the plate," Neda said.
Neda also had an RBI double in the fourth inning that gave Wisconsin a 2-1 lead.
"I had two strikes and was just trying to put the ball in play. He gave me a hanging curveball and I just tried to put a good bat on it, and lucky for me it happened," Neda said.
Neda has been behind the plate for all six Timber Rattlers playoff games this season, and has been credited by virtually every pitcher for helping them through their solid outings. Tonight he also helped out on defense, telling Suter to let a bunt roll that narrowly went foul in the tenth inning.
"Very close play and that would've been tough because it would've been first and second," Suter said. "I just had total faith in Raffy, he did a great job back there all night, and he said 'let it go, let it go' and it did roll foul, and it was a big time pick-me-up by him to call me off there because that would've been a really tough throw as a lefty to try to get around the runner going to first."
Neda said tonight's game was "a lot of fun."
"Every inning was really close, and the pitchers worked real real hard. It's gonna be really tough. They don't want to lose and we don't want to lose," Neda said.
Wisconsin doesn't have too much time to enjoy their victory tonight, as game two of the series is scheduled for 12:05 pm tomorrow.
"Enjoy this one for about ten seconds, then let's get as much sleep as possible and come out ready to go again tomorrow," Erickson said. "I guess there's really not much to be said at this point. They've played 150 games, they should know how to prepare themselves."
Fond du Lac native Chad Pierce is scheduled to pitch tomorrow for Wisconsin. Last time out, he pitched a complete game shutout in the second game of the Timber Rattlers' first-round series.
"He's been great for us, the last few times he's been on the mound. I know he loves pitching in this ballpark. He's had tremendous success. If he can get us off on the right foot tomorrow and find a way to win tomorrow's ballgame, we'll be sitting really good going into Fort Wayne."
Tomorrow will be Wisconsin's final home game of 2012. The series is scheduled to continue on Saturday in Fort Wayne and the last three games of the series (if necessary) will all be played there.
Garfield's Big Year
Cameron Garfield is back in the lineup tonight at DH and batting fifth for the fifth time in six playoff games. Garfield, a second round pick in the 2009 draft who is still only 21, hit .298/.385/.524 in 66 games for Wisconsin in his first healthy season after missing most of 2011 and early 2012 with a knee injury. Garfield said it feels great to be back on the field and producing after missing so much time.
"The number one issue for me is staying healthy and just being on the field, especially with this group of guys we have. It's just fun to go out there and contribute to the team," Garfield said.
With that said, Garfield has been hampered a little recently by a sore hand suffered when he was hit by a pitch in the first round of the playoffs. He missed one game, but has played ever since.
"It's still a little tender, but at the plate it's not really doing anything," Garfield said. "It's just one of those things that's in your head. It's a little tender but nothing's broken so it's fine."
Conventional wisdom would suggest that having a hand injury would cost Garfield some of his power, but he said it has actually helped him a bit this week.
"If anything, I think it'll help because I'm not really trying to think about the long ball - I'm just trying to make consistent contact," Garfield said.
Garfield set a career high and was fourth on the Timber Rattlers with eleven home runs this season, despite appearing in less than half of the team's games. He credits an improved mental approach for his increased power.
"I think the biggest thing is the mental side of hitting: I'm getting in good counts and swinging at good pitches," Garfield said. "I think another big thing is that I'm not really trying to hit the long ball. I'm just trying to help the team out, hit it hard and make consistent contact and the ball's going out."
After playing 204 of his 220 professional games at catcher, this postseason Garfield has played exclusively at DH. It's a change he hasn't always been a fan of.
"Earlier in my career I wasn't really too fond of the DH role - trying to keep your body loose and stay in the game when you're not on defense," Garfield said. "I think I've done a pretty decent job at it. I don't mind. As long as I'm in the lineup, it doesn't matter where I'm playing."
However, he says he'd still rather catch a great pitching performance than hit a home run.
"It feels wonderful to help the pitchers out. Their ERA is my ERA, and I just want them to do a great job," Garfield said. "To help them, that feels a lot better than hitting a home run."
Tonight is Wisconsin's fifth of six home playoff games (their final home game will be the second game of the series tomorrow), and the somewhat spontaneous nature of the playoffs leads to frequently smaller crowds at Fox Cities Stadium. Sunday's game, for example, was played shortly after the conclusion of the Packer game and had less than 600 fans in attendance. Garfield credited his teammates for keeping the team's energy level high, even when there's a small crowd.
"We understand they had a Packer game," Garfield said. "We have great team chemistry and the dugout is just electric in there, so I don't think it's really going to make a difference. But when we get a hit, we get riled up and we've got the energy on our side."
When you talk to Garfield, who is already in his fourth professional season, it's easy to forget he's only 21. If he hadn't signed with the Brewers in 2009, 2012 could have been his junior year in college.
"You always think about that, but it's in the past and I don't regret my decision either way. I loved being drafted by the Brewers and being in the system and trying to chase the dream," Garfield said.
When Wisconsin's season wraps up, Garfield will be one of many Brewer minor leaguers headed down to take part in instructional leagues in Arizona. He'll likely play a fair amount to make up some of the time he lost earlier this season with his knee injury. When you combine instructional ball with his preparations for the 2013 season, Garfield's offseason will be pretty short.
"After that (instructional league) I'll maybe take a little time off, a week or two, and then start training again and get my body back up to par, gain a little more mass and quality weight and get ready for next year." Garfield said.