By Jerry Briggs
Special for The JB Replay
Shawn Roof was a proud baseball manager on Friday night. Proud of his players. Proud of his coaches. Three nights ago, Roof’s Amarillo Sod Poodles lost the first game of a Texas League divisional playoff series at home to the San Antonio Missions.
Suddenly the Soddies, who dominated the second half in the TL South Division with 43 victories, were one loss away from getting unceremoniously swept out of the postseason by a team that finished tied for last.
But it didn’t happen. Or, rather, Amarillo’s players and coaches wouldn’t allow it to happen. They won Thursday and then won again Friday at Wolff Stadium in San Antonio to claim the best-of-three series, two games to one.
Outside the visitors’ clubhouse, about an hour after Amarillo had secured the postseason title in the South and advanced to the TL title round against Arkansas, the stadium lights were still on.
Amarillo players slowly filed out of the dressing room with bags slung over their shoulders, heading for the bus. A reporter asked Roof what it meant to him for his players to buckle down and win twice in two nights on the Missions’ home field.
“First off, you want to give credit to San Antonio,” Roof said. “They had a heck of a year. (Missions manager) Luke Montz and his staff did a great job. Those players play the game right. They had a great season. First, (I) want to congratulate them.”
The Missions, a team filled with enticing young talent and capable veterans, won 12-11 in 10 innings Tuesday night in Amarillo. In that regard, it took quite a bit of resilience for the Sod Poodles to steady themselves and win 7-4 on Thursday and then 6-3 on Friday.
Back to back — on the road. It was quite a statement, all right. A four-run fourth inning by the Soddies, ignited by extra-base hits from Seth Beer and Deyvison De Los Santos, proved to be the difference in the series finale.
“They were a very formidable opponent,” Roof said. “We had our backs to the wall (after the first game). But our guys came back and, you know, they never stopped fighting all year long. They’d always answer back no matter what the score was.
“I’m really proud of them and our coaching staff. I’m just excited for those guys, to have an opportunity to play for a ring.”
For the Missions, it was the second time in two years that they were eliminated on their home field in the first round. Last year, they lost the opener on the road and then came home to lose Game 2, falling in two games to the Frisco RoughRiders.
The Missions’ first season under Montz and its third under a renewed affiliation agreement with the San Diego Padres had its highs and its lows.
Buoyed by players such as Tirso Ornelas and Chandler Seagle, they won the TL South first half and thereby qualified for the playoffs by finishing 37-32.
After an almost complete roster makeover in the second half, they showed promise at times but ultimately finished 33-36, tied for last in the South with Frisco. Now, with the season completed, it was time for reflection.
“Hell of a season,” Montz said. “We came up short … This what you work for from Day 1, is to reach the playoffs.”
Added Montz, “We won Game 1 on the road, and that’s a tough place to play. Ten home runs, five by each team … It just didn’t go our way at home. We fell behind early in both games tried to fight back. Tonight they just went with a bullpen night (with the pitching) and we have three hits, four hits?”
For the record, it was three. Two singles and a Graham Pauley double. Another telling statistic? They were 1 for 11 at the plate with runners in scoring position.
The Missions had their chances. They led 1-0 early, and starting pitcher Adam Mazur plowed through the first three innings mostly unscathed.
“I thought Mazur threw the ball well,” Montz said. “We had that one hiccup where we give up four runs in the inning. We chipped away, got ourselves within a couple and then we give up another one late in the ball game. One win away from moving on and just didn’t come up with it.”
Trailing by a run early, the Sod Poodles erupted for four runs in the fourth to take a 4-1 lead. All of it came at the expense of Mazur, who had allowed one hit through the first three innings.
A.J. Vukovich started it off with a one-out single to center field. After Vukovich stole second, Beer followed with a ringing RBI double into the gap in left center.
Not to be outdone, De Los Santos hit a hard smash into the left field corner. Beer scored easily and De Los Santos made it all the way to third when the ball got away from Missions outfielder Ripken Reyes on the carom.
After that, the momentum continued to flow in Amarillo’s favor. Kristian Robinson walked, putting runners on the corner. Up stepped Juan Centeno, who executed a sacrifice bunt that scored De Los Santos. Jancarlos Cintron promptly drove in the fourth run on a triple to right.
Another key sequence in the game came in the bottom of the fifth when the Missions scored one to pull within 4-3. Nathan Martorella was up with two outs and the bases loaded. Carlos Meza struck him out to end the inning and the threat.
In the Sod Poodles’ next at bat, they capitalized when relief pitcher Austin Krob lost his control. First, he hit Beer with a pitch. Next, a wild pitch allowed Beer to take second. Ultimately, he advanced to third on a ground ball and scored on a line single to right.
So instead of the Missions taking control in the previous inning, the the Arizona Diamondbacks-affiliated Sod Poodles padded a lead that they ultimately would not relinquish, and now they’re headed for Game 1 of the championship series Sunday afternoon at Arkansas.
Montz told reporters that he enjoyed in his first year as manager of the Missions.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was a blast. Fell in love with San Antonio. You know, we’re Texas people. We live here, about five hours away (in East Texas). My wife and kids enjoyed it. We loved it. What a season.
“The locker room’s been fun,” he continued. “You know, we had some ups and downs from Day 1 to where we are today. Won the first round in the division. (Also, just) look at the new wave of guys who came through this locker room. A lot of guys have shifted to Triple A. Three or four who made it up to San Diego. Positives all around.”
Talented players who came to San Antonio in the second half of the season were so young, fans are surely wondering whether some might be back next year.
Catcher Ethan Salas was only 17 when he arrived in the last week of August. Pitcher Robby Snelling was 19. Shortstop Jackson Merrill was 20. Then there was 21-year-old Homer Bush, Jr., along with Pauley, Martorella and Jakob Marsee, all of them only 22.
“You look at the roster and you put things together,” Montz said. “Offseason, we’ll go to spring training and see what the front office wants to do. We’ll see what (Padres president) A.J. Preller wants to do with these guys, and go from there.”