Displaying a finishing kick that would make Usain Bolt proud, the Superior Titans and Manager Mike Renbarger completed their late-summer and autumn dominance of the league with their franchise record-tying sixth world championship, fending off the Springfield Isotopes in six games to walk off with top honors as we concluded the 37th season of play in the I-75 league.
Walk off they did, as catcher A.J. Ellis broke a 2-2 tie with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against Springfield ace Clayton Kershaw by nailing a ballpark homer chance on just 1-4 odds, shooting a 2.
The victory gave Superior its third straight win in the series, as it had to battle back from a 2-1 deficit, much as it had to shake some early-season doldrums when it failed to deliver on some pretty high preseason expectations. Despite a superstar-laden lineup that included reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, plus Miguel Cabrera and Anthony Rizzo, Superior was plodding along with a good-but-not-great 56 wins after 100 games, which at the time landed the Titans in the middle of the competitive Westbound Division, five games off the pace set by John Renbarger’s Boulder Tree Huggers.
Then the Titans caught fire, reeling off 17 wins in August and 14 in September to climb into a first-place tie, and end up winning the division by a seven-game margin following a 14-win October. Superior’s 101 regular-season wins earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
A six-game victory over those Tree Huggers in the semifinals lifted Superior into the finals against Dave LaMont’s Isotopes, who were vying for their first World Championship in their 19th year in the league.
“A.J. has been clutch for us all season vs. lefties,” said a champagne-soaked Renbarger. “We had faith in (Jake) Arrieta in a Game 7 situation, but nobody wanted to go there. Thanks to A.J., that’s all we needed.”
After the clubs split a pair of close games in Superior to open the series, Kershaw squared off against Corey Kluber for Superior in Game 3 in Springfield, and Kershaw turned in an epic performance. After allowing a three-run homer to Devon Travis in the second inning, Kershaw turned dominant as the Springfield offense clawed back and forced extra innings. Kershaw continued to toil, shutting the Titans down through 11 innings, when Ian Kinsler connected for a two-out, three-run walkoff homer off Erik Goeddel to give Springfield a thrilling 6-3 win and put them up 2-1 in the series.
But the Superior offense lived up to its name in the next two games, relying on the long ball to record 10-5 and 5-2 victories, sending the series back to Superior for the Game 6 dramatics.
Superior bashed 12 homers in the six games, lead by Harper’s three. Light-hitting infielders Travis, Ryan Goins and Andrelton Simmons were the real thorns though, combining to hit .412 with four homers and 11 RBIs, as Cabrera and Rizzo were kept in check without a single RBI. Lefty relievers Jake McGee, Travis Wood and Matt Thornton also played a vital role, allowing just five combined hits and one walk over 12 1/3 shutout relief innings.
For Springfield, which earned the championship berth by the narrowest of margins, a 1-0 Game 7 win over New New York, the offense was led by Starling Marte at .462, with three RBIs and two doubles. Stephen Vogt chipped in with three solo homers. Kershaw pitched 19 2/3 innings in two starts, allowing just 17 baserunners, but was tagged for 3 homers.
And thus Mike Renbarger wins his sixth I-75 League championship, but his first since 2003. The six titles for Mike’s Michigan Drifters/Superior Titans franchise match the six recorded by brother Dave as skipper of the Vlasic Pickles/Bushwood Gophers franchises.
Congrats to the Titans and Isotopes on a great World Series and superb overall seasons!