“It couldn’t have ended any better for me.” — Durham Bulls star and Scranton’s own Joe McCarthy
The date: Sept. 15, 2018
The place: PNC Field
The situation: It all came down to this. For the RailRiders, looking for their third Governors Cup championship in franchise history and second in three years. For the Durham Bulls, the defending champion who won the Triple-A national championship on this same field a year earlier. For Joe McCarthy, who grew up just a few miles away, a young star in the Tampa Bay system who is more like a savvy veteran when it comes to playing big games at PNC Field.
The lead-in: Everything seemed set up for the RailRiders. Unfortunately, the entire five-game series was being played at PNC Field, due to the devastation surrounding the Durham area following the strike of Hurricane Florence, but even with the Bulls playing as the home team in Games 3, 4 and 5, the RailRiders had a decisive comfort advantage. After scoring just five runs in the first three games, though, the RailRiders forced a winner-take-all Game 5 a night earlier, with a 5-2 win over the Bulls behind Mike Ford’s three-run homer in the fifth inning and a solid start from lefty Ryan Bollinger.
In the decisive game, the beat-up Bulls were forced essentially to fashion together an entire outing from its own bullpen, while the RailRiders had rehabbing right-hander Domingo German, who had a 3.03 career ERA at Triple-A.
McCarthy, though, proved to be somewhat less than intimidated.
The moment: The RailRiders had the first chance to break through, getting two runners on with two out in the top of the first. But Ryan McBroom hit a high fly ball to left that settled — where else? — in McCarthy’s glove for the final out.
Nobody would be able to catch the fly ball McCarthy hit with one out in the bottom of the first.
“I’m kind of expecting either something offspeed or buried, not too much over the plate,” McCarthy said. “And he made a mistake, and I was able to capitalize on it.”
McCarthy said, as he rounded the bases, the emotion of the moment engulfed him. He was in a winner-take-all championship game. His team needed a good start. He provided it, and he did it at home, with many in the crowd of nearly 3,300 — the largest crowd of the series — cheering him on.
“I was overcome with joy,” he said.
And, he wasn’t done.
In the third inning, he started a two-out rally with a groundball double to left. Series MVP Rob Refsnyder, himself a former RailRiders standout, doubled him home to key a tow-run rally and hand the Bulls a 3-0 lead.
But the biggest hit of the game for McCarthy may have been the one he came up with in the fourth. With the bases loaded and two out, McCarthy ripped a double to right against RailRiders lefty Justus Sheffield, bringing home all three runners. Durham had a 6-0 lead, and the homecoming story had started to look like a fairy tale.
Ford’s two-run home run in the sixth cut the lead to 6-2, but the RailRiders didn’t challenge again, and McCarthy got to celebrate a Governors Cup clincher like no other.
“I came here once in high school and it was actually with another one of my high school teammates who was a couple years older than me,” McCarthy said. “But I watched the game. And I watched the pitching. And I watched the outfielders. And I was like, ‘I can do this. I know that I can play at this level.’
“And it’s a farfetched idea at the time, being a 15-year-old kid in high school. But for nine years later, to be in this situation, with this happening, is absolutely crazy. For it to turn out this way, it’s really a dream come true.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
McCarthy had to overcome a series of back issues that nearly cost him the last few months of his 2018 season just to be on the field for that series, and getting there meant he could bring one of the less talked-about impacts of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre franchise on the area to the fore.
Youth baseball in the area since pro ball returned in the late 1980s has increasingly gotten better.
A fifth-round pick of the Rays in 2015 out of the University of Virginia, where he helped the Cavaliers win the College World Series, McCarthy is one of the centerpiece players developed in an area where several stars have gone on to professional careers.
Mountain Top’s Matt Wotherspoon, a Crestwood graduate, made his major league debut in 2019 for the Baltimore Orioles and was a member of that 2018 RailRiders team earlier in the season. Couglin fireballer Ray Black broke into the bigs with the Giants a year earlier.
McCarthy helped pave the way for several area stars who wound up being high draft picks. His former Virginia teammate, Mike Papi, was a first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in the 2014 draft, and in 2016, the Pirates took Valley View pitcher Max Kranick in the 11th round. Old Forge’s Kyle McMyne went to the Reds in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft. Just three months before McCarthy’s memorable Game 5, his brother Jake — a slick center fielder out of UVA — was taken in the first round of the 2018 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Only Wotherspoon, Papi, McMyne and Joe McCarthy have made their way to PNC Field to play for or against the RailRiders among that group, but several others from the region have played here over the years. Tunkhannock’s Marc Marini drew crowds when he played for Columbus in the early 1990s. So did Scranton High pitcher Ron Chiavacci, Montrose’s Rich Thompson, Valley View’s Wayne Lydon and Hazleton’s Russ Canzler, who became the first area player to suit up for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2014.
The homecomings aren’t limited merely to players: Gary Ruby, an Eynon native and longtime minor league pitching coach, was the Red Barons’ pitching coach in 1998, and Bloomsburg’s Doug Davis has been a member of the RailRiders’ staff the past several years.
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