Sacramento River Cats

In a year of adversity, Sacramento River Cats win third Triple-A championship

The River Cats’ Joe McCarthy slides in safely past Columbus Clippers catcher Ryan Lavarnway during the first inning of the Triple-A National Championship at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn.
The River Cats’ Joe McCarthy slides in safely past Columbus Clippers catcher Ryan Lavarnway during the first inning of the Triple-A National Championship at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn. The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

The first game was on April 4, in West Sacramento, under a cloudy sky with a first-pitch temperature of 63 degrees.

The final game arrived after marathon of season: 146 games, 319 player transactions, road trips near and far and a fair share of seasonal twists and turns.

It was Tuesday night in Memphis, game-time temperature a sticky and humid 96 degrees.

This is Minor League Baseball, where series survival is equally as vital as attrition, with followers needing updated rosters to keep track of it all.

The Pacific Coast League champion River Cats reached the last day of the season, facing International League winner Columbus Clippers in a one-game, winner take-all event, and then won it 4-0.

The Triple A championship is the third for the River Cats in its 20-year history in the state capital.

The one-game finale started in 2006, part of the thinking being, “The season is long enough. Decide it in one game.”

Sacramento seized early control Tuesday, sending nine batters to the plate in the first inning and scoring three runs. Jacob Heyward drove in two and Peter Maris homered for the River Cats, and Caleb Baragar earned the win, striking out five and allowing two hits in five innings.

Baragar was a late-season addition, one of 85 different players to suit up for Sacramento.

That the River Cats made it this far is testament to the talent on hand, players coming and going as 319 transactions is a ton by any measure, and to manager Dave Brundage, who lived the Triple A life for six years as a player.

“It feels great,” Brundage said after the game, surrounded by teammates during a post-game ceremony. “They played their hearts out.”

And these guys know how to throw a party.

When the River Cats secured the PCL Northern Division championship, some 100 gallons of champagne and beer were gleefully deposited onto pitching coach Steve Kline.

Last Friday in Texas, cleanup hitter Francisco Pena was left to do some extra cleanup duty. The catcher/first baseman was stuffed into an ice chest following Sacramento’s three-game PCL championship series sweep of Round Rock.

On Tuesday in Memphis, a place known to throw a good party, there was more beer, more champagne and more jubilation to toast a season well done.

Sacramento ended with a season-high six-game winning streak, rallying from a 2-1 deficit against Las Vegas in the PCL semifinals right on through Tuesday.

“We never give up,” Pena said Monday. “We believe in each other and we’ve (overcome) a lot because of all the transactions and all the guys coming through.

“We’re believing in each other and believing in the next guy, and just putting a little bit of faith in everybody on this team. We just pick each other up and that’s why I think we’re so successful.”

Pena knows all about this sport and winning in it. The son of retired major league catcher Tony Pena, this Pena led his New York team to the 2001 Little League World Series.

He was on the Kansas City Royals team that won the 2015 World Series. He has played 64 games with the St. Louis Cardinals since last season, so Pena has traveled, too.

On Monday, Pena implored his River Cats teammates to appreciate winning at any level.

Sacramento won it all despite losing perhaps its best player. Outfielder Mike Gerber was called up to the Giants on Friday night following the PCL sweep. The remaining roster never broke stride.

“Everyone’s tired and worn out from a long season, some players just getting called up, but it’s been pretty loose, pretty relaxed, and it’s been amazing,” River Cats general manager Chip Maxson told The Bee on Tuesday afternoon.

Maxson has been riding high, too. He was named the PCL Executive of the Year this week and Tuesday was his 40th birthday.

Players soaked in the Memphis sights and sounds Monday, including live music. Some rode scooters across town, others took in the Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

“It’s a great city to enjoy, to get cultured, and the last two days meant a lot to our guys,” Maxson said.

The season finale also means a great deal to the Savage family, too.

Art Savage bought the franchise in 1998 and relocated it from Vancouver for the 2000 season at Raley Field. Sacramento has enjoyed seasons in which it led all of minor league ball in attendance, and Giants fans jumped on board when the River Cats switched affiliations from the A’s five years ago.

Savage died in 2009. There are mementos of the man throughout Raley Field. His wife, Susan, and their son and River Cats president Jeff, were in Memphis to soak in the action as proud club owners. Jeff accepted the championship trophy after the game, representing his family, and he said, “It was next man up!”

Maxson said Savage lives on in legacy and in memory.

“He does, he certainly does,” Maxson said. “What a legacy he started and that Susan and Jeff and (Susan’s son) Brent continue. I’m privileged to hear the stories and we’re doing our best to continue the legacy.

“The craziness with all the transactions, the long season, we know what this means to the city of Sacramento and to River Cats fans everywhere.”

Sacramento’s success this month did not go unnoticed by the parent club.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of the River Cats winning the PCL title, “That was really cool. We’ve taken a lot of their players. For them to hang in there and win the PCL championship says a lot about them.”

Bochy also appreciates family loyalty.

He invited Brundage to join the Giants coaching staff for the the Red Sox series in Boston following Tuesday’s game, but the River Cats manager politely declined.

It’s not every day a Triple A guy passes on a major league invite. Brundage will instead head home to Portland, Oregon, to be with family, including his wife of 23 years, Dameron. He will join Bochy and the Giants when they return to San Francisco on Sept. 24.

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Joe Davidson has covered sports for The Sacramento Bee since 1988 and is award-winning authority on high school sports, specializing in going behind the scenes. Davidson was a high school athlete in Oregon, where he participated in football and track.