“I don’t even know how to describe the ninth.” — Red Barons manager Marc Bombard
The date: Sept. 1, 2000
The place: Lackawanna County Stadium
The situation: To say the least, the Red Barons were opening up a big series against Pawtucket, 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the IL Wild Card Race and two behind division-leading Buffalo. Two of those three teams were going to make the playoffs. One was packing their bags. The final four games of the 2000 season were going to sort all of that out.
The lead-in: For eight innings on that drizzly Friday night in Moosic, the Red Barons fought an uphill battle to not fall 2 1/2 out of the Wild Card race with just three games to play. They trailed 5-0 at one point. Later, it was 7-1. They entered the bottom of the ninth inning facing a 10-6 deficit, with for all intents and purposes, their season on the line.
The moment: The Red Barons cut the lead to 10-7 with one out when manager Marc Bombard rolled the dice. He sent lefty-swinging David Francia — a fourth outfielder who had just one career Triple-A home run — to the plate to pinch hit against Red Sox closer Rob Stanifer.
The second pitch Francia saw, he lofted to deep right field and over the blue Lackawanna County Stadium wall to tie the game 10-10.
“I was just trying to get the ball in the air,” Francia said. “Hopefully that way, we’d get at least one run. I’ve been pulling off the ball a little and after I missed the first pitch, (Bombard) told me to keep my shoulder in.”
It was a huge moment, for sure. But the Red Barons weren’t done completing an improbable comeback with improbable methods.
Speedy leadoff man Reggie Taylor followed the Francia homer with a single, and he followed that by swiping second. His next move was, as chance would have it, the best possible result of a baserunning blunder. On a hard grounder to shortstop, Taylor took off for third base, making it only after the Red Sox settled for the safe second out elsewhere.
The winning run was now 90 feet away, and a shortstop prospect named Jimmy Rollins strode to the plate, swinging a hot bat and kicking around a crazy idea in his mind.
What if…with the infield back..he got the right pitch…the exact right pitch?
Bombard whispered some advice in Taylor’s ear: Be on alert, the veteran skipper told the speedster. Because you never know what Rollins might be thinking.
He was thinking bunt, and Stanifer gave him that exact right pitch to push the ball up the third-base line on that old, green Astroturf. Rollins squared, the Red Sox defense panicked, and as ball hit turf, Taylor sprinted home to score easily. There wasn’t even a play on the bases.
“I knew they expected me to swing,” Rollins said. “I figured I’d take my chances with one pitch. I didn’t want to be too fine. The pitch was belt-high with a little sink and a tail on it. I didn’t want to do too much and got it down.”
As teammates mobbed Taylor at home plate, Bombard knew there were still three games to play in that regular season. He also knew something else: “For all that matters,” he’d say years later, “the series is over.”
The Red Barons would go on to sweep the stunned Red Sox, earning just the third playoff berth in their 12-season history with the help of the win their future Hall of Fame manager would call the biggest — and most exciting — of his career.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
After the daring bunt that sent the Red Barons to the playoffs, Rollins would go on to become arguably the greatest shortstop in the history of the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 15 seasons with the Phils, Rollins hit .267 with 2,306 hits, 216 homers, 887 RBIs and 453 stolen bases. He won four gold gloves, led the National League in triples four times and played in three All-Star Games. He won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2007, becoming one of just two players to suit up for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and later go on to win an MVP.
Meanwhile, the home run was just about the last big moment in Francia’s career. He played in 110 games for the 2001 Red Barons, but he hit just four homers after the blast against the Red Sox, and after playing in nine games for the 2003 Red Barons, capping a pair of injury plagued seasons, he was out of affiliated ball for good.
That home run, though, capped what at the time was a unique season for the Red Barons.
In the franchise’s first 11 seasons, the Red Barons earned just two trips to the postseason. This game pushed them to the third
Since that hit, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has been one of the most regular postseason participants in the International League. Over the next 19 seasons, they have made a stunning 13 playoff appearances, including each of the last four years.
In that regard, the Francia homer and the Rollins bunt in that series opener against Pawtucket proved to be somewhat of a turning point for the franchise.
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