West Michigan captures Midwest League championship
Tigers' No. 10 prospect starts comeback for Whitecaps in team's first title since 2007
After trading wins over the first four games of the best-of-five series, Class A West Michigan ultimately edged Cedar Rapids, 3-2, on Monday night to become Midwest League champions for the first time since 2007. It was the third straight game in the series that was decided by one run.
Cedar Rapids left fielder Austin Diemer connected on a solo home run in the bottom of the third to put the Kernels on the board, and third baseman T.J. White extended the lead to 2-0 with an RBI single in the subsequent frame.
However, West Michigan's offense bounced back in the fifth inning, scoring three runs while sending nine batters to the plate.
Tigers No. 10 prospect Christin Stewart got things started with a one-out walk ahead of designated hitter Joey Pankake and first baseman Will Kengor, who then singled and walked, respectively, to load the bases. Third baseman Francisco Contreras promptly drove in Stewart on a force out, and second baseman David Gonzalez added an RBI single to tie the game, also forcing Cedar Rapids starter Randy LeBlanc from the game.
Right-hander Luke Bard struggled to find the zone upon entering the game, as he threw a wild pitch before hitting center fielder Ross Kivett with a pitch to once again load the bases. Bard uncorked another wild pitch with shortstop A.J. Simcox at the plate, enabling Contreras to score the go-ahead run for West Michigan.
Stewart, whom the Tigers selected in the first round (No. 34 overall) of the 2015 Draft, went 0-for-3 with a run scored in Game 5 but had a strong postseason for the Whitecaps, batting .368/.429/.447 with three doubles, five runs scored and five RBIs in 10 games. Meanwhile, No. 19 prospect Mike Gerber, who went 1-for-4 with a triple on Monday, finished the postseason with a .289/.326/.474 batting line to go along with seven runs scored, three extra-base hits and two steals.
Whitecaps starter Ross Seaton was credited with the win after allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. The 26-year-old right-hander -- a third-round Draft pick in 2008 -- issued one walk while striking out seven batters.
West Michigan's bullpen was dominant in relief of Seaton, as three pitchers combined for 2 1/3 hitless innings to seal the victory. Specifically, No. 26 prospect Adam Ravenelle recorded a strikeout in 2/3 innings of work before turning things over to closer Joe Jimenez, the Tigers' No. 14 prospect, who struck out the side to notch his fourth save of the postseason.
The 20-year-old right-hander did not yield a run in that span, allowing just one hit while striking out eight over five innings. Jimenez saved 17 games during regular season, pitching to a stellar 1.47 ERA and 0.79 WHIP with 61 strikeouts in 43 innings.
"It was real nerve-wracking being such a close game," Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham told MiLB.com. "But we believed and our bullpen prevailed. Every arm that we brought in did their job."
Twins No. 5 prospect (No. 80 overall) Nick Gordon was the lone standout in the postseason for the Kernels, hitting .324 with 12 hits, three doubles and two steals over nine games. The 19-year-old shortstop -- the No. 5 overall Draft pick in 2014 -- impressed in his full-season debut, posting a .277/.336/.360 batting line with 31 extra-base hits, 79 runs scored and 25 stolen bases in 120 games for Cedar Rapids.