In a shortened game in a shortened series, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans came up just short in their effort to capture a third straight Carolina League crown.
The Down East Wood Ducks continued their torrid late-season stretch into the weather-abbreviated best-of-three playoff series with a clinching 2-1 win Friday night at TicketReturn.Com Field.
Down East won the second half of the Southern Division season, an outcome that appeared unlikely when they were 9 1/2 games out of the division lead on on July 26. Since that time, the Wood Ducks won 26 of their final 41 regular-season games before sweeping the Pelicans in the Southern Division Championship Series.
With Hurricane Irma approaching the Southeast, the Carolina League decided to cancel the Mills Cup Championship Series. As the Southern Division champion, Down East will share the overall league title with with the winner of the Northern Division, which Lynchburg and Frederick will decide later this weekend.
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“It was a rough first half, but then we had a come-to-Jesus moment right before the break,” said Down East’s Matt Lipka. “We knew we had to improve, and we did.”
The two-time defending champion Pelicans, who won the first half of the Southern Division this year, couldn’t muster enough offense at the right times late this season and in the playoffs, while the Wood Ducks capitalized on their opportunities.
The Pelicans opened the scoring in the bottom of the first when Zack Short led off the game with a deep double to left field. He crossed the plate two batters later on a double play grounder off the bat of Vimael Machin.
But that was the only run the Pelicans could scratch out, and the Wood Ducks responded soon after to tie the game in the top of the second. With runners on the corners, Pelicans catcher Tyler Pearson threw the ball into left field on Evan Van Hoosier’s steal attempt, allowing Preston Scott to score from third.
The Wood Ducks grabbed the lead an inning later when Lipka led off by launching a full-count rocket into the left-field bleachers to make it 2-1.
“It was just timely hitting,” Lipka said. “It was a changeup, and since I was kind of expecting it, I didn’t miss it.”
The Pelicans had chances late in the game but couldn’t find the timely hitting they needed to push across the tying run. They loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth before Jesse Hodges lined out to right to end the threat. The Pelicans also loaded the bases twice in Thursday night’s series opener but failed to score a run either time.
“We did a lot of things right, but the ball just didn’t land in our favor,” said Pelicans’ third baseman Jesse Hodges. “We had the bases loaded a bunch of times and we hit the ball hard, but it was just their day.”
Then in the sixth, Roberto Caro led off with a walk and eventually advanced to third with two outs, but Trent Giambrone struck out swinging to end the threat.
“Tonight we were a little nervous with their leadoff hitters getting on, but our pitchers did a great job when it was gut-check time,” Lipka said.
The Wood Ducks closed out the shortened seven-inning game when closer Scott Williams forced Willson Contreras, in Myrtle Beach on a rehab assignment from the Chicago Cubs, to fly out to right.
While Contreras will soon rejoin his Major League club, it’s the end of the season for most of the Pelicans.
“Right now, I’m thinking about starting the 2018 season,” Hodges said. “As a team and as individuals trying to make it to the majors, we can’t wait to get right back into it.”