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August 12, 2010

First Championship Worth The Wait!

Elliott's Infield Hit, Nielsen's Blast Win
Prospect League Crown

By Doug Kimsey
Paints Boosters Club Member

     In his inimitable enthusiastic manner, Paints' equipment manager Butch Atteberry said what many others were thinking in the aftermath of Chillicothe's first championship in its 18-year history.
     “Roger is looking down on us tonight,” Atteberry said. “And he's mighty happy for us all.”
     The only equipment manager the Paints' have ever known, Atteberry was referring to the late Roger Hanners, the much-loved former manager and director of baseball operations who piloted Chillicothe to the post season five times from 1994 to 2001.  Hanners, the father of team owner Dr. Chris Hanners, passed away prior to the 2002 season and is still considered the architect of winning baseball in Chillicothe.  But the elder Hanners, known by his legion of friends as “Raj” never captured the brass ring of a league title in his nine seasons at the helm.
     And after more than 1,300 games and 18 years of Paints baseball – 16 in the Frontier League and two in the Prospect League – it took a collection of two dozen, fresh-faced, young college players led by manager Brian Mannino, pitching coach Pat Schmidt and assistant Marty Dunn to finally end the title drought, winning the PL crown 7-6 in front of a partisan crowd at VA Memorial Wednesday (Aug. 11).  It was the 49th post-season game in franchise history, and only the second time in 11 tries that the Paints won a championship game in front of a home crowd.
     At 10:17 p.m., on a pleasant 70-degree night after a muggy morning, the Paints' slugging first baseman, 20-year-old Ian Nielsen out of Ball State University, drove an Andrew Walter 2-ball, 2-strike fastball over the wall in left-center for a walk-off, two-run homer.  While there have been dozens of memorable home runs down through the ages of Paints' baseball, none was bigger than Nielsen's blast. Period.
     The come-from-behind Paints' win completed a dominating wire-to-wire championship drive in which Chillicothe was never anywhere in the standings except first place.  From Opening Day on June 3 when they beat the Richmond River Rats and for the next 70 days, the Paints were the gold standard of the Prospect League, raising the bar of excellence to new heights even for a highly successful franchise whose history spans nearly two decades.
     For once, the best team won it all.  And if anyone wants to debate it, consider these accomplishments of the 2010 Prospect League champion Paints:

            ·        41-17 (.707 win pct.)

·        Projected over a Major League season of 162 games, that equals a 115-47 finish.

·        League-best offensive stats in batting average (.279); runs (381); home runs (36); stolen bases (113); doubles (113); triples (31); hits (538); slugging pct. (.426); on-base pct. (.388).

·        Blazing hot W-L marks, including June 18-6; July 17-9; Aug. 6-2.

·        Winning streaks of 8, 7, 7 and 4.

·        Home W-L of 23-8; road 18-9.

·        Outscored opponents by a full two-runs per game, 6.7 to 4.7.

Title Game -- One For the Ages
    
In its second year of operation, the Prospect League certainly could not have scripted a better ending.  The one-day, three-divisional format was a departure from the 2009 PL format in which Western Division winner Quincy topped Eastern Division champion Chillicothe in a best-of-three format, two-games-to-none.
     On Wednesday, Quincy fell to Danville 7-3 in the afternoon semifinal to set up a winner-take-all Chillicothe-Danville title game.  The Paints, by virtue of a league vote last spring, were chosen to host the day of champions. Home field proved key.
     The Paints struck early, scoring the game's first run in the second inning on consecutive doubles by all-star shortstop Greg Van Horn (College of Wooster) and second baseman Jeff Onstott (Dartmouth College).  Adam Gecewich (Ohio University) hit a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0 Paints.
     Chillicothe starting pitcher Eric Heckaman (Western Michigan University) was sharp from the start, retiring the first eight batters in order.  Only one ball left the infield, a lazy fly to center. But Heckaman hit No. 9-hole hitter Tyler Brubaker and surrendered a run-scoring triple to Sam Frost which cut the Paints' lead to 2-1 after three innings.
     Danville (33-25) turned the momentum around in grand fashion in the fifth on Alex Edward's long grand slam homer, putting the Dans in front 5-2 and knocking Heckaman from the game.
     Paints' hitters continued to struggle against soft-tossing, side-winding right-handed starter B.J. Boersma who retired the Paints in order in three of the first five innings, walking none and striking out none with his off-speed offerings.
     But the Paints finally got to Boersma in the sixth with singles by Torsten Boss (Michigan State University), Brandon White (Akron University) and Jeff Holm (Michigan State University). Holm's hit made it 5-3 and Van Horn's sacrifice fly made it 5-4.
     And that's how it stayed until the ninth.
     With Chillicothe facing elimination and an eighth trip to a title series without a victory, the Paints rallied.  Onstott, down in the count 0-balls, 2-strikes, worked Dans' southpaw reliever Chad Girado for a lead-off walk. Nielsen bunted for a hit and Gecewich was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
     Danville made a call to the bullpen for closer Will Browning, who led the PL in saves with 15.
     Browning appeared up to the task, getting Trace Voshell (Ohio University) to line into a douleplay, leaving Chillicothe three strikes from another long off-season as runners-up.
     But center fielder-relief pitcher Cody Elliott (Ball State University) chopped the first pitch on two hops to Danville shortstop Miles Silverstein whose throw to first appeared to arrive at the same time as the speedy Elliott.
     The umpire unhesitatingly ruled safe and the game was tied at 5-5, headed for extra innings.  In his account of the game, Danville newspaper reporter Chad Dare wrote that “television replays at the stadium clearly indicated that Elliott was out at first.”
     Paints' officials later stated that replays showed Danville first baseman Bryan Harr may have pulled his foot early to snag the high throw from Silverstein or perhaps it was the proverbial tie in which the runner and the ball arrived at the same time.
     The tie goes to the umpire, fortunately enough for Chillicothe.
     Paints' closer Kyle Lindquist (Marietta College) worked a perfect tenth and retired the first two Dans in the eleventh before trouble.  Austin Green singled and Cole Bieser walked, prompting the Paints to go to their fifth pitcher of the night, the multi-gifted Elliott who traded his outfielder's mitt for a pitcher's glove.
     Elliott, however, yielded a tie-breaking ground ball single to Sam Frost, and Danville was stoked to win its first championship since 2003, when the Dans won the Central Illinois Collegiate League.
     In the home eleventh, Onstott ripped a double to left, setting the stage for Nielsen.  The Laporte, Ind. native rocketed the game-winning homer, stirring a grand tumult of jubilation never before felt in Paints Nation.

(Doug Kimsey, a recovering newspaper journalist turned school teacher, can now die happy that the Paints have won a championship.  He can be reached at dkimsey77@yahoo.com)

 

   

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