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DURHAM, N.C. â When does a Game One have a Game Seven vibe to it?
The answer: When youâre participating in a single nine-inning affair that will determine the top Triple-A squad of 2012, which is whatâs happening Tuesday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, site of the Triple-A National Championship Game between International League champion Pawtucket and the Reno Aces, the top team from the Pacific Coast League.
Itâs a winner-take-all contest that will serve as the final minor-league baseball game of the season, at any level.
âThis is for all the marbles,â Pawtucket starting pitcher Nelson Figueroa said Monday, shortly after the teamâs batting practice session was cut short due to a quick-hitting rainstorm.
Added outfielder Jason Repko, âYou would think it would be a series, but a one-game playoff, thatâs the way theyâve done it. (It) should be exciting.â
The postseason survivors of the I.L. and PCL have squared off in a single-game joust in each of the past six years. Each side has three wins apiece.
Asked about how unique it is for a championship to be decided on the same day it commences, Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler responded, âItâs kind of tough. They donât know much about us and we donât know much about them. Itâs sort of like an All-Star Game, but at the same time it means a lot for these players. Weâll see how it goes.â
Beyelerâs chief worry is shaking off any rust thatâs surfaced since Pawtucket captured the franchiseâs third Governorsâ Cup last Thursday in Charlotte. âYou could say that weâre well-rested and ready to go, but we havenât seen live pitching and fielded live balls in a few days,â the skipper stressed. âYou canât stay sharp when youâre not playing, but on the flip side is that theyâve been able to get away from the game for a little bit so maybe theyâre a little more recharged and refreshed coming in here like, âHey, one-game gig and letâs go.ââ
Somehow it seems fitting that Beyeler would give the nod to Figueroa, who certainly seems to be following in the footsteps of Derek Lowe circa 2004. You may recall Lowe was the winning pitcher for all three of Bostonâs playoff series clinchers. If Figueroa succeeds Tuesday night, he too will go into the books as the Pawtucketâs victorious pitcher in all three of the teamâs deciding tilts.
The 38-year-old Figueroa found out last Saturday that he would be getting the ball while Pawtucket worked out at Knights Stadium. The media notes that were distributed Sunday afternoon outlined that either Figueroa or lefty Chris Hernandez would match up against Reno rising star Trevor Bauer. Beyeler told the media that Figueroa would be the guy shortly before Mondayâs workout.
âA one-game championship, I definitely wanted to be the guy with the ball and I think they knew that also,â said Figueroa, whoâs quietly become the unofficial ace of Pawtucketâs pitching staff since coming over from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in late July. âFor them to give me the green light is exciting and a tremendous honor.â
Certainly, Beyeler and pitching coach Rich Sauveur had plenty of options to consider. Billy Buckner hasnât been in a game since Game Three of Pawtucketâs first-round series while Hernandez has been idle even longer. Zach Stewart and Steven Wright are two more names Pawtucketâs on-field brass undoubtedly kept in mind before ultimately settling on Figueroa and the seven wins heâs racked up since joining Pawtucket.
âWe thought about a lot of different scenarios, but Nelsonâs the one we decided to throw,â said Beyeler.
An Arizona resident during the offseason, Figueroa has kept close tabs on the 21-year-old Bauer. The right-handed Bauer has been on the fast track the moment the Diamondbacks tabbed him with the third overall pick of the 2011 draft. He quickly tore through Arizonaâs system with this past June 28 serving as his MLB debut. He returned to the minors after four big-league starts and going 1-2 with a 6.06 ERA.
âHere we are at the opposite end of our careers,â noted a smiling Figueroa. âIâm going out there and everyone knows that you can throw the age out the window. Iâm a kid at heart. Heâs (21) and Iâll be maybe a year older.â
Reno manager Brett Butler says Bauer is unique in that heâs wise beyond his years.
âHere is a guy who was a mechanical engineer major (at UCLA) and has the in-tune understanding of his ability, his mechanics and what heâs trying to do,â said Butler, a former MLB outfielder who authored 558 stolen bases during his 17-year career. âHeâs got three or four big-league pitches, one of which is a fastball thatâs been clocked at 98. Heâs got a good curve and a nice changeup he can throw at any time. The bottom line is that he knows how to pitch and heâll be ready for (Tuesday night).â
EXTRA BASES: Even though the game is being played in an International League ballpark, the PawSox will serve as the away team. The reason: the Pacific Coast League defeated the I.L. in the Triple-A All-Star Game, 3-0, back on July 11 in Buffalo, N.Y. âŠ For those who plan to turn the volume down on the NBC Sports broadcast and receive play-by-play information via radio, youâll be hearing an additional voice. The regular tandem of Aaron Goldsmith and Steve Hyder still will be describing the action; itâs just that theyâll be sharing the duties with Renoâs Ryan Radtke. Whatâs expected to happen is that the PawSoxâ duo and Radtke will switch off every couple innings, with the ninth inning reserved for the team thatâs ahead. âŠ The PawSox will host a Triple-A National Championship watch party Tuesday night at McCoy Stadium as fans are invited to view the game on the right-field video board. Admission is free. The Governorsâ Cup trophy will make its first public appearance and fans will also have the opportunity to purchase the same t-shirt the players wore after capturing the I.L. crown. âŠ A PawSox victory celebration will take place outside Pawtucket City Hall Thursday beginning at noontime. The fete represents a prime chance to pay tribute to the International League champs. âŠ Former PawSox pitcher Mark Prior passed the following well wishes via email: âCongrats PawSox! Been following your progress through the playoffs. Great job, guys. Good luck Tuesday!â