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A magical season for former Southern Maryland Blue Crabs manager Butch Hobson and his Lancaster Barnstormers was not supposed to be hijacked by the Long Island Ducks’ Cinderella story.
But that’s exactly what happened in shocking fashion as the clock never struck midnight for Long Island this postseason.
Ignoring Lancaster’s status as the heavy favorite along with its own woes from the regular season, Long Island celebrated an improbable Atlantic League title Sunday with a 5-4 dramatic upset of visiting Lancaster in the deciding Game 5 of the championship series.
Long Island never led the series until Dan Lyons’ two-out, championship-clinching bunt single in the bottom of the ninth to drive in Matt Esquivel from third. Esquivel crossed home plate to ignite a raucous Long Island celebration.
Long Island also broke the hearts of the favored Blue Crabs in Game 5 on its field with the same 5-4 outcome to capture the Liberty Division Championship Series on Sept. 30.
“It was disappointing for the guys,” Hobson said to LancasterOnline.com’s Burt Wilson after Sunday’s numbing loss to end Lancaster’s championship expectation.
This marked the third straight year the league championship was not won by the best team in the regular season, as Long Island suffered such fate a postseason ago.
Lyons, named series Most Valuable Player, described to LancasterOnline.com of his perfectly executed bunt to win the championship, “I just looked down the third-base line, saw the third baseman was back, and thought now was as good a time as any to try and put it down. Fortunately, it was a good bunt.”
Lancaster boasted the most dominant regular season in the 15-year history of the league, winning a record 88 games — nine games better than the next-best team in York — while owning the circuit’s best offense and pitching staff.
Lancaster swept then two-time reigning champion York in the Freedom Division Championship Series.
Meanwhile, Long Island was considered an afterthought to the league’s four-team postseason picture after a miserable second half, which saw the Ducks manage a league-worst 24-44 record, 14 games behind the Blue Crabs.
Their first-half division title seemed to be many moons ago as they finished the regular season with a 63-74 overall record, 23 1/2 games behind Lancaster’s 88-52 regular season mark.
“Just remember what you accomplished this year,” Hobson said in the postgame clubhouse after the heartbreaking end to the series, according to LancasterOnline.com, which described some of his players in tears. “You won 93 games. I know it’s no consolation for the loss tonight, but you had a hell of a year and I’m proud of you for that.”
The Lancaster skipper continued, according to LancasterOnline.com, in his address to his players after Game 5, “I’m proud that I can say that I had a chance to manage a lot of class guys. Every day you came to the ballpark, you busted your butt and you did the things you had to do to go out and win …
“I love you guys. You’re like sons. It was a tough loss. We set out to do something and we almost did it. I know it hurts but it’s baseball and we will get this opportunity again if you want to continue to play for me.”
Former Blue Crabs John Halama, Adam Godwin, Kody Kirkland and Bridger Hunt were all involved in the Game 5 shortcoming as well being regular contributors in the series.
Hobson, who just finished his second season guiding Lancaster, is not unfamiliar to the role of playing league runner-up. His Blue Crabs lost the 2009 championship series in Waldorf’s Regency Furniture Stadium to Somerset, which formerly held the record for most regular season wins until Hobson’s current club broke that mark.
Hobson was hoping for his first league championship since leading Nashua to the coveted prize in 2000. Nashua left the league for another independent circuit in 2006.
As the ninth turns
The Barnstormers showcased their usual offensive tenacity in the top of the ninth in Game 5 with a pair of runs to tie the game, the second score coming on a two-out, critical throwing error by Lyons.
But Lancaster could not escape the bottom of the ninth to force extras.
“[My players] battle back to tie it and it’s just a tough loss after that,” Hobson said to LancasterOnline.com.
Lancaster slugger Fehlandt Lentini added, according to LancasterOnline.com, “It’s hard to look back [over the season and feel proud]. We’re here now and this is what just happened. I feel like we were the better team. I feel like we could have played a lot better. Things just didn’t go our way the last two nights [of Games 4 and 5].”
Lancaster held a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five series after taking the pivotal Game 3 on Friday in Long Island, 12-5. But Long Island, like it did after losing Game 1 in 5-1 fashion, came back to tie the series. Long Island won Games 2 and 4 Thursday and Saturday by 9-4 and 9-3 outcomes, respectively, to push the series to an all-deciding Game 5.
Providing the championship-clinching hit was the perfect atonement for Lyons following his error in the top half of the ninth. He was 6 for 21, a .286 batting average, in the series with a run scored in each game, five RBIs and a pair of doubles in claiming MVP honors.
“I felt incredibly bad about the throw,” Lyons told LancasterOnline.com about his ninth-inning error in Game 5 that enabled Lancaster to tie the score, setting the stage for his series-clinching bunt hit. “I knew [Lancaster batter Gilberto] Mejia was a good runner and I rushed my throw.”
Lyons went 3 for 4 with four RBIs in Game 2 at Lancaster to pace Long Island to the comeback victory that evened the series. Long Island, trailing 4-3 through eight innings of that contest and three outs away from an insurmountable 2-0 series deficit, exploded for a six-run ninth against usually reliable Lancaster closer Tim Hamulack, who had a league-leading 33 saves and a 2.15 ERA during the regular season.
Lyons’ two-out, ninth-inning offensive heroics in the series began in Game 2 as he stroked a bases-loaded double of Hamulack that drove in three and unknotted a four-all game at the time. Long Island went on to score twice more in that ninth frame to cement its Game 2 win.
Lyons was only held hitless in Game 3 of the series.
“We had our closer out there and he just didn’t have his stuff that day,” Hobson said to LancasterOnline.com of Hamulack in Game 2, the contest the Lancaster skipper felt was the turning point of the series. A Hamulack save in Game 2 might have meant a series sweep for Lancaster. “We came back here [to Long Island] and got a big win [in Game 3]. And then the last two nights [in Games 4 and 5], we just didn’t hit.”