After 17 years, the Lexington Legends are once again South Atlantic League champions.
In the team’s inaugural season in 2001, the Legends led the Asheville Tourists 2-0 in the championship series and were declared winners when the remainder of the series was canceled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This time around, they completed their championship run on the field.
After dropping the first game of the series in heartbreaking fashion, blowing a 5-0 lead in the ninth inning, the Legends rallied to win three straight and clinch the title. Their playoff run culminated in a gritty 2-1 road win over the Lakewood BlueClaws on Friday night that was keyed by a pair of big at-bats by another newcomer and a narrow escape in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Shortstop Cristian Perez had struggled in the playoffs before Thursday. In his first season with the Legends, the 19-year-old from Venezuela had gone 1-for-14 at the plate in the postseason before coming up with two hits and an RBI in a 6-3 win that put the Legends up 2-1 in the series. His resurgence continued on Friday when he knocked in both Lexington runs.
In the top of the fifth, Perez doubled home Manny Olloque to give the Legends a 1-0 lead. With the game tied 1-1 in the top of the ninth, Brewer Hicklen drew a leadoff walk and went to third on Olloque’s line-drive single. Then Hicklen scored the game-winning run on Perez’s sacrifice fly to right field.
Legends Manager Scott Thorman said he wasn’t surprised that Perez was able to shake off his playoff slump right when it mattered most.
“These guys just fed off each other, and they knew that if they didn’t come up with a big hit the guy behind them would,” Thorman told the Herald-Leader after Friday’s game. “Every night it seemed like it was a different guy. Brewer drew that walk, then Manny had a big hit and Cristian did a great job getting the run in.”
It took one last gutty performance to finish the job. Tad Ratliff replaced Janser Lara on the mound in the bottom of the ninth. After three singles, Lakewood had bases loaded with two outs and was one hit away from potentially sending the series to a winner-take-all fifth game. After a coach visited him on the mound, Ratliff stayed in the game. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound right-hander drew a groundout to third to end the game and seal the Legends’ second championship. Ratliff picked up the save in all three of the Legends’ wins in the series.
“The bullpen was huge,” Thorman said. “Tad Ratliff was the big gun for us that ran that bullpen. He showed up big time.”
Thorman knows that because of the nature of minor league baseball, the Legends’ roster will likely look very different next season. But he said right now the team is living in the moment and enjoying a rare accomplishment.
“These kids really wanted it. They were all-in on going after a championship and we’re really proud of them,” he said. “We’re going to enjoy this night. The experiences they had during this run and all of the plays they made and the way they executed down the stretch, that will really benefit them moving forward in their careers.”