The three-peat will have to wait at least another three years.
The Durham Bulls were seeking their third consecutive International League title, a feat accomplished only once in the 87-year history of the Governors’ Cup, the league’s formal recognition of the champion. The only other team to do it — the Columbus Clippers, from 1979-81 — happened to be the Bulls’ opponent in this series. And they had other ideas.
Using the long ball as they did in the first two games of the best-of-5 series played in Columbus, the Clippers belted three home runs in the span of eight batters in the sixth and seventh innings, plating six runs. Those were more than enough, as Columbus triumphed 6-2 and won the championship in a sweep.
The outcome might have been different had the Bulls taken advantage of seven walks by Columbus starter Mitch Talbot, a 35-year-old veteran and quintessential minor-league journeyman. Talbot pitched for the Bulls in his early years, more than a decade ago, and was the winning pitcher for Durham in the 2009 Triple-A National Championship game. Two years later, in 2011 with Columbus, he beat the Bulls in the first round of the International League playoffs on the Clippers’ way to their own second straight Governors’ Cup title.
On Thursday night, he had a chance to beat Durham in the International League playoffs again, eight years after a baseball odyssey that has taken him from the majors to Korea, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, unaffiliated American baseball and, finally, Columbus again. Although he lasted one out shy of qualifying for the win, Talbot kept wriggling out of trouble on his veteran wiles and his still-vexing changeup. He allowed just two hits, struck out five batters and departed with his team down just 1-0.
“You slow your mind down,” Talbot said afterward. “You know exactly what you need as a pitcher after you’ve been able to do it for a long time. I couldn’t get my consistency down” — partly due to the surprisingly hot Durham night, he noted, after a stretch of mild weather up in Columbus — ”but I was able to make good pitches in key situations.”
Columbus quickly erased that slim deficit on a three-run homer by Bradley Zimmer in the top of the sixth inning off Aaron Slegers, who had come into the game in the third inning in relief of Blake Snell, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, on a major-league rehab assignment with Tampa Bay, the Bulls’ parent club. Snell pitched a scheduled two innings, retiring all six batters he faced, three by strikeout.
In the seventh, the Clippers hit two more home runs off Slegers, including a two-run shot by series MVP Ka’ai Tom, effectively putting the game away. Down 6-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Bulls loaded the bases with two outs, but reliever Jon Edwards came in and struck out veteran Jason Coats, ending the threat and, effectively, the Bulls’ season.
“If you look at the series,” said Durham manager Brady Williams, “the three-run homer pretty much did us in. They hit ‘em, we didn’t.
“But it was a good fight by our team,” added Williams, who piloted the Bulls to the league finals in his first year managing in Triple-A. “We never quit. We had Jason Coats, our hottest hitter, with three home runs in the playoffs (at bat) with a chance to tie the game up. You can’t really ask for much more than that.”
In the series, Columbus scored 19 of its 21 runs via homers. It was a powerful and convincing three-game sweep by the team that sported the league’s best regular-season record and celebrated its league-record 11th Governors’ Cup championship, all since 1977, on Durham’s mound — just as the Clippers did in 2010.
Just four teams have claimed the last dozen International League titles: Columbus and Durham (four each), Pawtucket and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (two each). … No team has won the championship on its home field since 2007. … Attendance was 2,290. … Next season, MLB September roster expansion allowances will shrink dramatically, likely bringing significant change to the generally spotty complexion of Triple-A playoff rosters, which have traditionally been raided for their best parts every Sept. 1, just as the minor-league postseason begins.