The New York Sullivan Explorers have defeated the Watertown Bucks by a score of 8-6 to win the first Empire League Championship Series.
Kevin Putkonen and Gevon Jackson celebrated winning a baseball championship on Wednesday night for the second straight year in Watertown.
However, the pair didn’t bring home a title for the city as both seasons they played on teams that eliminated the Watertown Bucks in the playoffs, this time with the Sullivan Explorers.
The Explorers dashed any hopes the Bucks had of winning a championship by prevailing 8-6 in Game 2 of the Empire Professional Baseball League finals before a turnout of 136 at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.
Putkonen, who is Sullivan’s player-manager, and Jackson both played last year on the Newburgh Newts, who swept the Watertown Bucks in two games to win the North Country Baseball League title.
“This is special,” said Putkonen, who finished last season as Newburgh’s player-manager. “I’ve been fortunate to be on good teams and it’s just our mentality. We found a new mentality about midway through the season, the guys bought into the system, we executed and we came out on top.”
This time, they teamed up to help spark the Explorers to the first-year EPBL’s title in a two-game sweep of Watertown in the finals.
The result left the Bucks — particularly manager Simon Walters — almost at a loss for words.
“You have no idea,” Walters said when asked how disappointed he was with the outcome. “In two games, we got like only four innings from our starters. So it’s disappointing.”
Watertown finished the regular season with the league’s best record (35-21) after winning both the first- and second- half titles.
But the Bucks, who lost the first game 8-7 on Tuesday, never led in the championship series against the red-hot Explorers.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Watertown left fielder Javier Marticorena said. “We came in after we clinched both (halves) of the season and we kind of expected a little better performance. But baseball is a strange game.”
Sullivan won 11 of their final 13 games to win the league title, including generating a nine-game winning streak to qualify for the postseason.
“It’s amazing, this is a very blessed feeling,” said Jackson, who was named the EPBL’s playoff MVP. “It’s been a long year personally, but when you come out here and play for your team, it all works out in the end — and that’s what it’s all about.”
Like in Tuesday’s playoff-opening loss to the Explorers, the Bucks never fully recovered from allowing a big inning early.
“That’s definitely something that can’t happen in big games like this,” Marticorena said. “You can’t allow such big innings early on to happen. We just dug ourselves too big a hole we couldn’t come out of.”
After striking for six runs in the first inning of the series opener, Sullivan jumped out to an early advantage by scoring four times for a 4-0 lead in the second inning on Wednesday.
“They beat us at their own game and they executed,” Walters said. “They were just the better team in this series. It doesn’t matter what our record indicated, they came in hot and took it to us from the get-go.”
Watertown, which played as the visiting team in the second game of the series, responded with a four-run frame of their own to tie the score in the top of the fourth.
After catcher Brian McKenna singled in a run, Johnny Cole scored on a wild pitch for the Bucks. After Calvin Graves walked, Sheehan Planas-Arteaga followed with a two-run single to left field to pull Watertown even at 4-4.
But Sullivan bounced back to take the lead for good with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Nate Coronado drew a leadoff walk and scored from first base after Adrian Gonzalez reached on an bunt single and Bucks third baseman Collis Hunt threw the ball away on the play.
Rey Ordonez Jr. followed with an RBI single to left field.
The Explorers led 8-4 in the fifth as Taylor Nichols and Coronado each reached on infield errors and came home as Gonzalez reached on a fielder’s choice and on an Ordonez single to left, respectively.
“That was huge, that put a lot of pressure on them,” said Jackson, who went 3-for-9 in the series and drove in four runs, including a two-run home run in the opener. “They’re a championship-type team. They scratched back at us and we did a great job of answering. They were here for a reason, but we answered them when we should have.”
The Bucks drew within 8-5 in the sixth as Planas-Arteaga reached on a fielder’s choice and scored on an infield error.
Watertown failed to score in the seventh and eighth, despite putting multiple runners on. It had runners on first and third with one out in the eighth, but Javier Marticorena flied out to short center field and Garcia was thrown out at the plate on a strike by Ordonez Jr.
The Bucks got within 8-6 in the ninth as Eddie Malone Jr. singled and scored when pinch hitter Alex Herceg reached on an infield error, but Graves grounded out to short the end the game.
“My mood is I’m disappointed,” Planas-Arteaga said. “We were there at the finish line, we just couldn’t cash it in.”
Sullivan ace Jameson McGrane pitched six innings to earn the win. Harrison Lee, the team’s No. 2 starter, tossed two scoreless innings and Erik Mozeika worked out of trouble in the ninth to record the save.
Watertown starter Ben Ancheff suffered his first loss of the season in seven starts as he lasted only three-plus innings.
Sullivan also got to Watertown ace Zach Breen early on in Tuesday’s season opener to deal him the loss.
“They beat us in all phases of the game tonight,” Walters said. “You have to tip your cap to them and that’s why they get to host the trophy tonight.”
Coronado, Brian Brademen and Jackson each singled in a run in Sullivan’s four-run second inning.
The Watertown Indians were the last city team to win a pro baseball championship by winning the New York-Penn League title in 1995