The good times have always rolled on Friday nights in Dunn Tire Park the last 17 seasons. But never like this.
The Buffalo Bisons turned the corner of Washington and Swan into party central on the most memorable Friday in their history, cruising past the Richmond Braves, 6-1, to wrap up the International League's Governors' Cup championship.
Buffalo won the best-of-five final series, three games to one, to claim the third title of its modern era and first since 1998. It's the Herd's sixth Cup victory, putting the 2004 club on a par with championship teams from 1933, 1936, 1957, 1961 and 1998. The '97 Bisons won the final American Association title.
Veteran pitcher Evan Thomas, rescued in late July from the independent leagues, pitched eight stellar innings for the second time in five days and combined with Brian Tallet on a five-hitter. Jason Tyner's two-out, two-run double in the fifth and Dusty Wathan's three-run double in the sixth provided all the offense the Herd would need.
A crowd of 5,616 was on its feet for the entire Richmond ninth. And the fans exploded as first baseman Ryan Garko speared Ryan Langerhans' hot grounder and slid into first base for the final out.
Fireworks shot off in the sky and the team met in a big pileup behind the mound. Second-year manager Marty Brown, hitting coach Carlos Garcia and pitching coach Ken Rowe shared hugs in the dugout before joining their troops.
"That's the best crowd I've ever seen in Triple-A," Thomas said. "It was awesome. It seemed like there were 100,000 people there screaming and yelling. That last inning with Tallet pitching, they were going nuts."
"It was beautiful. There was nothing like it. Buffalo fans are just gorgeous," said always loquacious second baseman Brandon Phillips. "We really love them a lot."
Several players threw their caps into the stands as "We Are the Champions" blared from the stadium loudspeakers. Buster Bison and Chip carried the Governors' Cup onto the field and IL President Randy Mobley then presented it to Brown and Buffalo General Manager Mike Buczkowski. They lifted it over the heads, a la the Stanley Cup, as the fans celebrated the team's first Cup clincher downtown.
The players headed to the clubhouse for a wild champagne celebration while Brown stayed on the field and carried the trophy around the park -- all the way out to the berm in right field -- so the fans could get a closer look.
Some players, led by Phillips, interrupted his journey by ambushing him with some bubbly.
"The people of Buffalo have been great," Brown said. "This is such a good baseball city and it always was when I played against them when the stadium was brand new in 1988."
Buffalo captured the final three games of the series, the last two batting as the visiting team in its home park after the entire schedule was switched here because of poor weather and field conditions in Richmond.
Just to get to the finals, the Bisons had to pull off the first comeback from an 0-2 deficit in their history in beating two-time defending champion Durham in the semifinals. Thomas threw eight shutout innings in Game Five of that series and was just as tough Friday.
"I went out there and I was going to keep on throwing until they told me to stop," Thomas said.
"He might have been able to throw all week," added Wathan.
Thomas got the lead for keeps when Tyner pulled Richmond starter Mike Romano into the right-field corner for a double that scored Wathan and Jason Cooper. In the sixth, Romano left a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the hands of reliever Buddy Hernandez, who had thrown 8 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs.
Wathan fell behind, one ball and two strikes, before pulling a drive to deep left that carried over Langerhans' head and cleared the bases to give Buffalo a 5-1 advantage.
"I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit," Wathan said. "I got another changeup and got it over the left fielder's head and the rest is history as they say."
"He's been known to put down the right fingers (as a catcher calling pitches) but he's never really been an offensive guy," Brown said. "But this year he hit .300 and just did a phenomenal job."
The Herd wasn't finished. Cooper reached on a throwing error by Richmond third baseman Mike Hessman and Phillips followed with a sacrifice fly to cap the four-run inning and put Buffalo comfortably in front.
From that point, it was just a case of Thomas working more of his postseason magic. The last 13 Braves and 18 of the final 19 were set down. Thomas, who was 3-1 for the Herd in the regular season, struck out eight and walked none.
The victory ended a wild ride for the Bisons. Buffalo was 16-25 in late May before the first of four seven-run comebacks produced a 9-8 win over Norfolk. From that point, the Herd went 67-36 the rest of the way and won the North Division by 10 games after once trailing it by 9 1/2 .
The division race was a laugher but the playoffs were full of drama. They ended on a fabulous Friday the Bisons and their fans won't soon forget.e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org