At long last, the Aberdeen IronBirds are headed to the New York – Penn League playoffs.
On Monday night, for the first time in the Aberdeen club's 12 seasons, the IronBirds clinched the New York-Penn League's McNamara Division title by beating visiting Lowell, 7-3. With the win they will move on to post-season play.
"It's a special team, and this is a special place to play baseball," IronBirds' manager Matt Merullo said just after the final out of Monday's game, and shortly before he retired to Ripken Stadium's home clubhouse to join the celebration his players were throwing.
"It's great to bring a playoff team to Aberdeen. It's just been an honor to be the manager of this ball club. It's a great group of kids. They've been pulling for each other and battling every single night. We're here because of all those great guys celebrating in the clubhouse right now," Merullo said.
Though attendance for the game was listed as 3,760, a little more than half of Ripken Stadium's capacity, the home faithful were charged up for Aberdeen's pennant-clinching performance, standing to cheer the IronBirds at the conclusion of most innings. Near the conclusion of the game, with reliever Jimmy Yacabonis on the mound, the IronBirds up by four runs, and two men out, the entire stadium crowd was on its feet clapping. Yacabonis issued a two-out walk, then sealed his team's historic win by inducing a weak pop-out to first base. The Aberdeen bench, ready at the top step of the home dugout, poured out to celebrate near the pitcher's mound when the final out was made. Afterward, Merullo was treated to the customary ice-water bath by his players, who dumped the contents of a Gatorade cooler on his back.
Monday's victory, Aberdeen's third straight including a two-game road sweep of second-place Brooklyn over the weekend, put the IronBirds at 38-32 on the season. Brooklyn, which lost its Monday matchup and needed an IronBirds' loss to stay in contention, fell behind 2.5 games when Aberdeen sealed the win over Lowell.
As only two games remain in the regular-season schedule, there is not enough time for anyone to catch the IronBirds. Through Monday, Hudson Valley was sitting in third place, 3.5 games out of first, while Staten Island was at the bottom of the division standings, seven games in back of Aberdeen.
Aberdeen wasted little time jumping ahead on Monday, scoring twice in the bottom of the first, then scoring twice more in the second. Lowell produced one run in the fifth, but the IronBirds answered with another pair of tallies in the sixth. The guests' final two runs came in the seventh, while Aberdeen added an insurance run in the eighth.
The IronBirds had just one batter with multiple hits, Mike Yastrzemski, who went 2-for-4 with a double and one run scored. Trey Mancini was 1-for-4 with one RBI and one run, while Jared Breen and Federico Catagnini each had one RBI and one run. Justin Viele, Conor Bierfeldt and Jeff Kemp each scored one run.
Reliever Jon Keller (1-0) earned his first win of the season at just the right time, tossing three innings in which he struck out two, walked one and held Lowell to one earned run on one hit.
Steven Brault made the start and went three innings, holding Lowell to a pair of hits and recording two strikeouts in a no-decision appearance.
Yacabonis stepped on in the eighth and tossed two innings of shutout relief to earn his fourth save of the season.
"This team just battles for you, every night," Merullo, a first-year manager who joined the IronBirds after several years as a professional scout, said during his team's division struggle with Brooklyn and Hudson Valley. "When one guy is having a tough stretch, another steps up and gets the hit, or comes in from the bullpen and gets the out we need. There aren't any egos or stars on this team. They play like a unit, and they can win ballgames."
Aberdeen plays a post-season contest on Friday night, but the opponent and venue for that matchup had not yet been decided as of Tuesday afternoon.
The State College Spikes, who clinched the Pinckney Division, will finish with the best record in the league even if they lose their final two games, so they will square off with the league's wild card entry. The IronBirds will play the team that comes out on top of the Stedler Division, Tri-City or Lowell. The team with the best regular-season record plays the first matchup of the best-of-three series on the road, then hosts the second and third.
The two teams that come out of the league semifinal championships will then meet in the best-of-three New York-Penn League Championship Series, which will start next Monday or Tuesday.
Tickets for the upcoming semifinal championship will go on sale at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Fans interested in playoff tickets can purchase them in-person at the Ripken Stadium box office, by calling 410-297-9292, or by visiting the IronBirds website, http://www.ironbirdsbaseball.com.
It was close, but the Aberdeen IronBirds managed to complete a two-game sweep of the Brooklyn Cyclones on Sunday afternoon with a 6-5 victory, and in the process put another game on their McNamara Division lead with just three games left in the season.
The IronBirds, who trailed the Cyclones by a half game heading into the weekend series, enter their final series of the season Tuesday against the Lowell Spinners with a 1.5-game lead in the McNamara Division over Brooklyn. Aberdeen is 1-2 against Lowell this season.