Although few people seem to know what it means to Paint it Black, the Sugar Land Skeeters did just that Sunday night in dramatic fashion with a walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning to defeat the Lancaster Barnstormers 10-6 and advance to the Atlantic League Championship Series.
Right fielder Tony Thomas’s game-ending homer capped an improbable finish to a game and a division series that the Skeeters trailed until the end.
“It’s kind of surreal and unbelievable,” Thomas said. “We work so hard to get to a moment like that.”
The Skeeters are now playing in their third Atlantic League Championship Series in their seven-year history. They won the championship in 2016 by sweeping the Long Island Ducks in three games. The Ducks, who won the Liberty Division championship Sunday night by beating the Somerset Patriots in 10 innings, advance to their third consecutive championship series and a re-match with the Skeeters.
The Skeeters host the Ducks Tuesday, Sept. 25, and Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Constellation Field. The series then moves to Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, N.Y., for the remainder of the series Friday through Sunday.
“I feel good. I’m ready to take on Long Island. We’ve got the momentum now. I like our chances,” team owner Bob Zlotnik said amid the pandemonium after Sunday’s game.
He was thrilled with the comeback victory.
“I mean it can’t get any better than that. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better baseball game,” agreed team President Jay Miller. “Unbelievable! So much fun; just a blast! I’m kind of emotional now; it’s an unbelievable game. Good for (manager) Pete (Incaviglia). All those guys played their asses off all year and never quit. We lose 15 guys and keep playing and keep winning. It’s a tribute to Pete and the team. They just battled and never quit. Always felt like they were going to win.”
Winning the series was never a given. The Skeeters opened the best-of-five Freedom Division Championship Series with two games in Lancaster. The Barnstormers took a 5-0 lead going into the ninth of the first game and held on to win after a three-run homer by Juan Silverio closed the gap to 5-3. Game 2 in Lancaster saw the Skeeters bounce back 3-0 behind James Russell who threw seven scoreless innings.
After a travel day on Thursday, the teams settled in at Constellation Field and played Game 3 on Friday night. All week long the organization asked fans to wear black to the stadium in recognition of the Paint it Black theme, only to have the team come out in their white jerseys and proceed to play one of the worst games of the season. The Barnstormers plated five runs in the second inning and coasted to an 8-2 victory over Sugar Land.
According to Skeeters media relations specialist Ryan Posner, the Paint it Black is a reference to an old Rolling Stones song of the same name and also the team’s lucky black alternate jerseys. They wore the black jerseys the next two nights with favorable results.
Game 4 on Saturday was all Skeeters as they crushed Lancaster 7-2. Alvaro Rondon and Derek Norris each provided two-run singles and sacrifice flies in the win. Lucas Irvine notched the win for the Skeeters after allowing two runs over 5 1/3 innings.
Sunday’s fifth and decisive Game 5 found a sparse crowd in the stands to cheer the home team. The way the game started, there was little for the few in the stands to cheer about. The Barnstormers brought in three runs in the second inning and picked up another in the sixth for a 4-0 lead. Pitcher Nate Reed kept the Skeeters scoreless through six innings. When he was relieved in the seventh, that’s when momentum began to change and the crowd came alive.
With two on in the seventh, Anthony Giansanti hit a sacrifice fly and scored Denis Phipps. The next inning, Luke Dykstra hit a single that scored Albert Cordero and closed the gap to 4-2. The Barnstormers got another run in the ninth and looked like they were about to put the Skeeters away with a 5-2 lead. That’s when their bullpen fell apart. Blowing through six Barnstormer pitchers after Reed was done, the Skeeters caught up in a hurry. Giansanti started the ninth with a solo homer, followed two batters later by Matt Chaves with a shot of his own. Derek Norris hit a single that brought Barrett Barnes, pinch running for Cordero, across the plate to tie the game.
By this time the fans were making enough noise to make the stadium feel full. The energy and momentum continued into the extra inning. Lancaster reclaimed the lead when a double by Ryan Casteel brought home Darian Standford.
In the bottom of the 10th, Alvaro Rondon flied out to start things off. Giansanti got to first on a single and then went to second on Juan Silverio’s single and then to third on a wild throw. With Chavez at the plate, Giansanti scored on a wild pitch. Chavez was given an intentional walk bringing up Javier Betancourt, who was hit by a pitch to load the bases. That brought up Tony Thomas who sent a 2-0 pitch over the wall in left field.
“I got to the plate and I wasn’t thinking about a home run. I just wanted to get a hit and score a run. When it got to 2-0, he (pitcher John Anderson) put it in the zone and I just hit it out of the park,” Thomas said.
After the game, a breathless Giansanti gushed about his teammates.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less out of this team. I guess all I can say is we’re not done yet,” he said. “That’s all I got. We’ve been doing this stuff all year. Twenty-seven outs it takes to beat us, tonight it would have taken 30, but I’m so proud of this team but we ain’t done yet. I’m just at a loss for words.”
Cordero, hoisting his daughter onto his shoulders, was equally exuberant.
“It was crazy, it was an awesome game,” the Venezuelan said. “We never give up. We know we’ve got a good team and good guys in the bullpen. We never gave up. We give everything we’ve got and we won the game and that’s what everything’s about.”
Incaviglia, who has nearly four decades of professional baseball experience, was exuberant after the game.
“I’ve said this a couple times, if the fans in the stands didn’t love baseball before, they love it now,” he said. “It’s about as good an ending as you could have to a great season.”
After a day to rest, he will have his team ready for the championship.
“Looking forward to the Ducks. Any time you win a game like that with a come-from-behind win in a divisional series going into the championship series, it’s a nice springboard.”
The Skeeters have struggled with the Ducks, going 8-10 against Long Island this season. They were 4-5 at Constellation Field and 4-5 at Bethpage Ballpark. The Ducks are the only team in the league that the Skeeters don’t own a winning record against in 2018. The team went 2-4 in the last week of the season against the Ducks, but by then they had already clinched the first and second half titles and the best record in the league. Incaviglia kept pitching starts short and gave several players on the depth chart some playing time against a team that was battling to make the playoffs.
“We were not playing our best ball against them,” Thomas said. “I like the matchup against them.”
Game 1 is Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. and Game 2 is Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. Tickets are $5.