“From a fan’s standpoint, you couldn’t ask for anything more in a championship game.” — Columbus infielder Torey Lovullo
The date: Sept. 18, 1992
The place: Cooper Stadium (Columbus, Ohio)
The situation: In their first magical season, and to many fans of a generation gone by it was the most magical season in franchise history, it all came down to this for the Red Barons. Game 5. Winner-take-all. A true championship game for the 1992 Governors Cup. An upstart Red Barons team that not only made the playoffs for the first time in its history, but finished above .500 for the first time. A star-studded Columbus team that won more games than any International League teams in decades. A game televised back home around the region for the thousands of fans bitten by the postseason bug.
It was all set up for a triumphant celebration. Or, for the Red Barons, a painful near-miss.
The lead-in: The 1992 Red Barons might be the most-beloved team the franchise has ever seen. From the bond formed with regulars like Steve Scarsone and Rick Schu, to the raucous applause when “Bad to the Bone” blared over the PA system to introduce closer Jay Baller in the late innings, the Red Barons became the hottest ticket in town in the summer of ’92. More than 560,000 fans flocked through the gates at Lackawanna County Stadium that season, setting a franchise attendance record that would be surpassed only once, 15 years later.
After an emotional semifinal series win against Pawtucket, the Red Barons set themselves up with a five-game championship series against manager Rick Down’s Columbus Clippers, a team that got contributions from an unbelievable 28 players who had been in the big leagues or would go on to be there. Once was their dynamic leadoff man, a switch-hitting center fielder named Bernie Williams — who hit .306 with 8 homers and 20 steals that year before getting called up to New York that season — doesn’t exactly need an introduction when he walks into Yankee Stadium these days. Eight of the 11 spots on the IL’s postseason All-Star team were filled that season by Clippers.
The ’92 championship series already established itself as one of the most exciting in memory by the time Game 5 started. Greg Legg’s eighth-inning single plated the eventual game-winning run in a 4-3 victory in the opener at Lackawanna County Stadium. In front of 10,051 fans in Moosic, the Clippers won a classic pitchers duel in Game 2; Red Barons starter Brad Brink and Clippers southpaw Jeff Johnson pitched 10 scoreless innings apiece before Jay Knoblauh’s two-run home run in the 13th inning knotted the series.
But when the series went to Cooper Stadium for Game 3, Kim Batiste ripped a two-run double in the eighth inning to propel the Red Barons to a win and get them a victory away from an unlikely championship, and they nearly got it the next night in the most dramatic of fashions. Trailing by eight runs, the Red Barons battled back to send the game into extra innings. But Knoblauh drove home a run in the 11th to walk-off with a series tying win.
Knoblauh and the Clippers, however, would need the next dramatic comeback.
The moment: For eight innings, the Red Barons looked primed to end the Clippers dream season with a defeat. First baseman Gary Alexander launched a home run in the second inning, and the Red Barons carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning, with ace lefty reliever Wally Ritchie — who had a 2.70 ERA and five saves in 1992 — on the mound.
The Red Barons took a lead into the ninth inning 59 times before that game that season. They won all 59 of those games.
“It was quiet in our dugout,” Clippers infielder Torey Lovullo said. “We knew we were up against a strong team that really wanted it.”
Unfortunately for the Red Barons, they ran up against a team used to making comebacks, a team that knew it had the talent to put the pressure on an opponent as gritty as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Hard-hitting shortstop doubled to lead off the inning against Ritchie. Then a top Yankees prospect, Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens singled him home, and the Clippers were almost immediately within a run.
With a stiff wind blowing out to right field and the switch-hitting Lovullo due up, Red Barons manager Lee Elia played the percentages. He left Ritchie in the game, forcing Lovullo to hit right handed — even as right-handed closer Darin Chapin warmed in the bullpen. The goal was to keep Lovullo from hitting left-handed and pulling one into the right-field seats, of course. But he hit a grounder past Ritchie up the middle for a single. Meulens went to second, putting the tying run in scoring position and the potential winner on first.
That’s when Elia called on Chapin.
Chapin seemed to settle the rally momentarily, striking out Bill Masse. But Knoblauh came to the plate and did what he seemed to do the entire series: He singled home the tying run.
Even with Chapin in the process of striking out Bobby DeJardin with a slider for the second out, the runners advanced to second and third, bringing Brad Ausmus to the plate.
After Chapin nearly uncorking a wild pitch that would have brought Lovullo home with the winning run — catcher Doug Lindsay made a brilliant stop on a wayward slider — he caught too much of the plate with a fastball. Ausmus poked it to right, just out of the reach of lunging right fielder Pat Brady. The ball bounced by him, Lovullo scored, and the Red Barons walked off the field in defeat. On the bench, Ritchie, bundled in his Red Barons jacket, held his head in his hands in disbelief (photo above).
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The Red Barons came within three outs of a league championship four seasons into their existence. They’d be proof for decades, though, that the pursuit of a Governors Cup isn’t as relatively immediate as they made it look right out of the gates.
It would be nine years before the Red Barons would get another shot to play for the coveted Cup, and 16 more before they’d actually hoist it for the first time. More on those segments of franchise history later in the countdown, of course.
Both Ritchie and Chapin appeared in games for the Phillies in 1992 before becoming the key members of the Red Barons bullpen in those finals. But, Game 5 was the last appearance for each in the Phillies organization, and neither set foot in the majors again.
Ritchie spent 1993 in the IL with Toledo, where he appeared in 62 games and posted a 4.76 ERA. He pitched to a 5.35 ERA at Double-A Chattanooga in the Reds chain in 1994, his last season in affiliated ball.
Chapin, meanwhile, pitched the following three seasons in Triple-A — two years in the Pacific Coast League and one with Buffalo in the American Association. His ERA never dropped below 6.21, and he retired after the 1995 campaign.
Knoblauh won MVP honors in the series after playing just 34 regular season games for the Clippers in 1992. In 1993, he hit .187 in 53 games, the last of his career.
The biggest names in that ninth inning comeback for the Clippers have made much bigger impacts in the majors. Ausmus hit .251 in 18 professional seasons, made the All-Star team in 1999 and currently is the manager of the Los Angeles Angels. Lovullo is the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he also holds a special place in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre history.
In 1999, his final professional season in the United States as a player, Lovullo hit 21 homers and drove in 106 runs for the Red Barons. The 106 RBIs remain a team record.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT