MARION -- This sixth season of Southern Illinois Miners baseball has been the toughest yet for the organization, certainly no walk in the park.
But it was a bases-loaded walk drawn by Jake Kaase in the bottom of the 12th inning that ultimately gave the Miners a 4-3 win over Florence to claim their first Frontier League championship Sunday night at Rent One Park.
The Miners won the best-of-five game series 3-1 after sweeping Traverse City in the first round. They did it as the fourth seed in the postseason and snatching home field advantage away in both rounds.
"When I came here, we had the goal to build an organization that could do this and be a winner," said Miners manager Mike Pinto, who has guided the team on the field since its inception. "It's been frustrating along the way, we thought we were close, but this team finally put us over the edge.
"There's not a guy in here that hasn't had a big part in making this happen. And they can walk away from here and always say, 'I was a champion. I was a part of the first one here.' And they'll never be forgotten here."
The clinching win certainly encapsulated the Miners' entire season in that regard, with contributions coming from everywhere and at times from unlikely places. None bigger than Darrin Tew's three scoreless innings out of the bullpen in extra frames -- Tew hadn't made a single appearance since late August.
"Darrin was probably wondering the last couple of weeks, 'Am I ever going to get in? Do they not like me?'" Pinto said. "But you just have to find the right spot for the right guy and hope when they get that, they step up."
Southern Illinois struck first with three runs in the fourth against Florence starter Andy Clark, who also pitched the first game of the series.
Javier Herrera singled and moved to second on a groundout by Ken Gregory, then scored when second baseman Pierre LePage tried to make a spectacular play on Jason Ganek's grounder up the middle.
The leaping throw by LePage after a nice stop got past first baseman Drew Rundle for a run-scoring error. Chad Maddox followed with a two-run homer just over left-fielder David Harris' glove at the fence that made it 3-0.
"It didn't go over by much, but I'm glad it went over at all," Maddox said. "Anything we could do to get a run was big. Especially in the last inning, it was great that the fans stayed behind us and gave us confidence."
The Freedom tied it in a bizarre way to cause the "last inning" that Maddox mentioned.
After starter Shawn Gilblair gave the Miners five scoreless innings, Nick Cicio pitched a scoreless sixth but gave up two unearned runs in the seventh when Steven Cardullo's seemingly harmless single up the middle got under the glove of Miners center fielder Alvaro Ramirez and went all the way to the wall.
Page 2 of 3 - The error allowed Jim Jacquot, who drew a walk to lead off the inning, to score along with Cardullo who circled the bases easily as Ramirez chased the ball to the deepest part of the park.
Florence tied it in the eighth against relievers Steven Grife and Brandon Cunniff. A ball just over Cannon Lester's glove at second base led to a run scoring on a fielder's choice that was nearly a double play if not for a hard slide.
But the game was tied at 3-3 and eventually headed for extra innings. Defense ruled until the 12th, when the Miners won it without even getting a hit.
Brandon Mathes pitched six scoreless innings of relief with eight strikeouts for the Freedom, but was lifted to start the 12th in favor of Jorge Marban. He walked Maddox and got the first out when Carlos Mendez dropped a sacrifice bunt to advance Maddox.
Sean Coughlin came off the bench to pinch hit and drew a four-pitch walk, then Lester struck out for the second out. Freedom manager Fran Riordan went to reliever Brent Choban and Pinto countered with another pinch-hitter in Will Block.
Block was given an intentional walk that loaded the bases for Kaase, who had a 3-1 count when a high and tight pitch from Choban caused him to spin in a swinging motion and bring the count full.
But he let Choban's next pitch dip low and outside for the free pass that gave the Miners their first Frontier League championship.
"It's one of those things you look forward to your whole career and I got that opportunity," Kaase said. "When I saw they wanted to walk (Block) I was just like, 'Here's your chance to shine.' It wasn't what I would have liked to do but I'll take it."
Pinto praised the patience his shortshop showed at the plate in that situation.
"Let's face it, that could have gone either way with that kind of an at-bat right there," Pinto said. "He just showed great discipline at the best time ever."
Lester was named the MVP of the championship series after collecting eight hits, including a pair of home runs, in addition to playing a solid second base. But he said the MVP could have been Tew, who relieved Cunniff and pitched the final three innings in scoreless fashion while giving up just one hit.
Tew hadn't pitched since a forgettable outing on Aug. 26 against Windy City in the regular season when he faced two batters and gave up two hits and a run. But he was a superhero for the Miners in their biggest game in franchise history.
"You can't say enough about Darrin Tew," Lester said. "He hadn't pitched in no telling how long; I didn't even know he was left-handed, that's how long it's been. For him to come in and do what he did, there were different MVPs in each game and where he came in was the biggest spot in the series."
Page 3 of 3 - Tew didn't have much to say about his heroic effort.
"You just have to lock it in," he said. "It felt good to go out there and throw strikes. This feels amazing. I've never had this before."
This was the fourth appearance for the Miners in the Frontier League playoffs, with first-round exits leaving scars after the previous three tries. This time around, the regular season was paved with a brutal travel schedule, the loss of players like Matt Fields, Max Peterson and Sean Harrell -- not to mention injuries -- and the key additions of players like Ramirez, Herrera and relievers Cicio, Grife and Cunniff in the second half of the season.
Somehow, it all worked perfectly and the result was Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee handing over the Frontier Cup to the Miners in front of 2,606 fans Sunday night.
"It was a grind from the first day of the season," Pinto said. "We lost some key guys to organizations, to injuries, and yet, new guys jumped in and fit in like a glove, like they belonged from the beginning."
And it ended with a walk in the park.