MEMPHIS, TENN. - Nick Lachey, part-owner of the Tacoma Rainiers and former boy-band heartthrob, stood by smiling and watching as the players sprayed beer and champagne throughout the visiting locker room at AutoZone Park Friday night.
The Rainiers had just completed a three-game sweep of the Memphis Redbirds with an 11-inning, 10-6 victory in front of 6,709 to capture their first outright Pacific Coast League championship since 1969. They did so by winning all three games on a field where the Redbirds, the defending PCL champs, had won a franchise record 50 games this season.
It’s one of many reasons why Lachey, wearing his gray Rainiers cap, just couldn’t stop smiling.
“When you invest in a team, you buy a team, this is what you dream of,” the former 98 Degrees singer said, “this moment when you’re dousing champagne in the visiting team’s locker room, when you’ve just taken their heart and soul away and you’ve won the championship on their field.
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“I think I speak on behalf of the entire ownership group when I say this is amazing. This is what we’ve always dreamed of. I couldn’t be prouder of Tacoma, the city, the team, of all the players and the administration for making this happen.” The Rainiers, as they did the entire series, did most of their damage via the long ball. They belted four more home runs against the Redbirds to finish the three-game series with 11.
But in the final inning, the Rainiers found a more conventional way to manufacture runs – using singles that just managed find holes.
Following a walk by Dustin Ackley to start the inning, it was a blooper by Greg Hal-man, flares by Matt Mangini and Mike Carp and a single to right by Justin Smoak that accounted for all four runs.
“We’re known for hitting the ball out of the park,” Hal-man said. “But in baseball, a hit is a hit. We put something together, and everybody caught on, and we won the game.”
Outfielder Mike Wilson, who was 2-for-5 on the night, including a solo home run in the sixth, was named the MVP of the series.
Afterward, Wilson was still in shock that the Rainiers had won all three games in Memphis – although technically they were the home team in the first two games after being unable to play at Cheney Stadium because of the renovations taking place there.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Wilson said. “You can’t even explain it right now. To do it at this level, with all the odds against us, playing here for our home games. But we had some friends behind us in West Tennessee. They came down and rooted us on. It just feels good.”
Wilson was speaking of fans from Seattle’s Double-A affiliate in nearby Jackson, Tenn. Now he hopes his own relatives from Tulsa, Okla., will come out to support the Rainiers as they head to Oklahoma City to take on International League champion Columbus on Tuesday in the Triple-A championship game. The game will begin at 5:05 p.m. Tuesday and will be televised on Versus.
After the Rainiers fell behind 2-0 in the first inning, catcher Eliezer Alfonzo hit a solo homer in the third to put Tacoma on the board. Tacoma used a solo homer by Ackley and three-run shot from David Winfree to take a 5-2 lead in the fifth.
The Redbirds countered with a pair of runs in the bottom of the fifth. After Wilson’s homer, Memphis tied the game in the seventh with RBI singles by Mark Hamilton and Amaury Cazana.
Tacoma scored all four of its runs in the 11th off Memphis reliever Eduardo Sanchez.
Tacoma, which tied for the 2001 PCL title with New Orleans after the championship series as cancelled because of the 9/11 attacks, claimed the franchise’s fifth title.
With one title in hand as a part-owner, Lachey hopes to add another one Tuesday night.
“That’s the crazy thing about minor league baseball,” Lachey said. “You’ve just got to get to the end. All it takes is getting into the postseason. From there, anything can happen. Not in my wildest dreams did I think we could sweep Memphis in Memphis. I could not be more impressed and more proud of what our team has done.
“Obviously, we have one more game to go. We’ll take on Columbus and go from there.”