Friday, September 15, 2006

Baby Bombers Champions Again, Repeat As New York Penn League's Best

STATEN ISLAND, NY -Just call them champions again. Even with an extra day off along with a one hour 24-minute rain delay couldn't stop the inevitable when the Staten Island Yankees repeated as NY-Penn League champs by shutting out the Tri-City Valley Cats 2-0 in a winner take-all Game 3 before an enthusiastic 878 at Richmond County Bank Ball Park Friday night. It's the first time in 25 years a team has went on to win back-to-back NY-Penn League titles.

As has been their identity all season en route to the league's best record, the Baby Bombers won a lowscoring game with pitching, defense and timely hitting to claim their fourth title in the past seven years.

"They don't get any better than this," emotional skipper Gaylen Pitts told his club after being doused with champagne during a wild celebration inside the locker room. "I'll ride with you guys anywhere."

Led by starter George Kontos' brilliant six scoreless innings which included a season high 11 strikeouts, the Baby Bombers used the common formula along with two big RBI's from veteran DH Kyle Larsen to take home the hardware and celebrate in style before a raucous crowd.

"It feels great. It's the best feeling in the world," a jubilant Kontos said outside the dugout while fans chanted his name. "We came in here from Day 1 and we said we were going to do this, got it done and we feel great about it."

"It's been a fun ride with all these guys," leadoff hitter Seth Fortenberry added inside an emotionally charged room. "What more can you say? The guy went out and threw his heart out and pitched a great game. Shut it down for us."

Coming off a tough 9-2 Game 2 loss the other night, Staten Island jumped out of the gate much quicker and did something they couldn't Wednesday. Get an early lead and let solid pitching and D take over.

After Kontos worked around a first inning walk, the Bombers got to Tri-City starter Chris Salamida. The southpaw entered as the league's best pitcher during the regular season finishing 10-1 with a miniscule 1.06 ERA. He also picked up a postseason win against Auburn in the first round by tossing six scoreless. None of that mattered last night when Staten Island used a two out rally to give Kontos an early lead.

With the first two retired, third baseman Mitch Hilligoss' opposite field double kept the inning alive for Larsen. Behind in the count 0-2, he delivered a clutch RBI single into right to put the Bombers on top. After Colin Curtis followed with the third consecutive hit to put two on, Salamida limited the damage by getting second baseman Wilmer Pino to pop out to short.

"It's an amazing feeling," a pleased Larsen said after knocking in both runs on the night. "I can't even describe it. It's something I will never forget. Coming to this place especially with the front office and all the people here and the fans, it's been amazing. They deserve it...To get that run in the first was huge."

"The day off might have helped us more than people thought," Hilligoss noted. "That maybe we'd dwell on the loss but I think it was good for us to use it and relax. The guys did a great job."

Given a lead, Kontos got stronger and began a stretch of fanning at least two Valley Cats from the second through the fifth. After whiffing two in the second, he K'd two more in the third to keep his team ahead before they got a key insurance run. Shortstop Chris Kunda ledoff the home third with a double to left. His teammates used some little ball to get him in. A Hilligoss ground out to second got Kunda over to third and then Larsen followed with a sac fly to left which scored Kunda to make it 2-0.

"Winning the College World Series is a similar feeling," Kunda expressed after the shortstop got the team off to a good start in the field with a sparkling defensive gem for the game's first out. "Being able to make a play like that to begin things kind of give momentum on our side right away...The hit- I was trying to get something started when we had the guys coming up behind me. Kyle already had an RBI the first inning. I was just trying to create another opportunity."

Ahead two, Kontos served notice by striking out the side in the fourth in impressive fashion- getting Jordan Parraz and Max Sapp to chase fastballs before painting the outside corner to freeze James Van Ostrand. He would retire the next six Tri-City batters via K and seven of eight at one point.

"I felt good...Everything was working. I wasn't overthrowing. My fastball was good. It was moving. My slider was real tight and my curveball was breaking well. That's all I can ask for," Kontos pointed out. "Today was obviously a big game. [Salamida] has done great for them all year...It was kind of projection that everyone saw coming. My teammates picked me up big time and I just helped them stay ahead."

"Amazing. We knew. There was no one else in my mind that I want the ball in his hands," praised Larsen. "He's a warrior. He's a guy who fought for us all year and to come out and pitch the way he did is awesome. I'm so happy for him."

Though he also fanned the side in the fifth, Kontos worked around two hits by getting Tim Torres on a nasty breaking ball that caught the outside corner to strand both runners.

His final frame proved the most challenging. With one down in the sixth, Parraz singled to center and advanced to second on a wild pitch. When Kontos cameback to freeze Sapp for the second out and his final strike out of the night, it looked like he would get out of it without a problem. But he lost Van Ostrand and then allowed an infield hit to Justin Tellam which suddenly loaded the bases. When he fell behind Chris Johnson 3-0, danger loomed.

After getting a fastball across the plate for 3-1, Kontos almost balked in a run. However, plate umpire Tripp Gibson mistakenly awarded Parraz home. Before Kontos stopped his delivery, Johnson asked for time. When the four umpires convened, they properly reversed the call reloading the bases. Still behind in the count, Kontos dug deep by throwing consecutive strikes and got Johnson to harmlessly pop out to Pino.

"I fell behind 3-0," the championship winning starter noted. "I was opening up and dragging my arm. That's why everything was up. I sat back, took a deep breath and got on top of the ball. So I took a little bit off of it. [Johnson] got a little on top of it and no runs scored."

With Kontos finally done, Pitts turned it over to the bullpen. Reliever Nick Peterson worked a 1-2-3 seventh and got the first two in the eighth to pull the Bombers within four outs of another title. But Tri-City wouldn't go down easily. After Sapp beat out an infield single to second, Van Ostrand walked to put the tying runs on forcing Pitts to call on closer Mark Melanchon to get a four out save. He got Tellam to ground out to Pino to end the threat.

After S.I. went quietly in the eighth, Melanchon got Johnson swinging and Aaron Bulkey to line out to Pino to pull within an out of their ultimate destiny. After a tough battle with Greg Buchanan, he finally got him to chase a high fastball, touching off a wild celebration on the field which invoked memories of last year's championship team.

Keeping with the theme in which they doused 2005 manager Andy Stankiwiecz, repeat winner Larsen helped Gatorade Pitts before everyone celebrated with the trophy on the field.

"There's nothing better than winning a championship. Especially with the Yankees," Peterson excitedly remarked. "I've never been a part of something like this."

"The enjoyment that we're having. Just the whole year what you look forward to. And then at the end of the year, just the kind of fulfillment that you have. It's unbelievable," center fielder Colin Curtis added. "After a little bit, I knew that we had it in us. I knew that we were going to make a good run at it."

Hilligoss summed up the special season perfectly:

"We're a close knit group all year. That's what it's all about. The chemistry of this team."


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