Plattsburgh wraps up EPBL title

Thunderbirds’ first baseman Simon Palenchar rips into a triple in the top of the ninth inning in Thursday’s game. (Enterprise photos — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — The Plattsburgh Thunderbirds are the 2019 champions of the Empire Professional Baseball League.

The Thunderbirds nailed down the title with an 8-6 victory Thursday, which gave them a two-game sweep over the New Hampshire Wild in the best-of-three championship series played at the Petrova Avenue field in Saranac Lake.

After rallying late to win Wednesday’s opening game 7-6, the Thunderbirds surged out to an early 6-1 lead and never looked back, although for the second straight day, they found themselves in another battle that went down to the wire in a matchup between the teams that finished with the top two records in the Empire League’s regular season.

Plattsburgh grabbed a 2-1 edge in the first inning, and then pushed the lead to 6-1 after scoring two more runs in both the second and fourth innings. Facing a five-run deficit, the Wild rallied with four run in the bottom of the fifth to close the gap to 6-5, and the contest turned into a nail biter down the stretch. Closing pitcher Cas Silber sealed the deal for Plattsburgh, retiring six of the seven Wild batters he faced during the eighth and ninth innings.

The Thunderbirds tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth when first baseman Simon Palenchar led off with a triple and reached home on a sacrifice fly to center field by Danny Muller.

Plattsburgh’s Cas Silber fires a pitch toward the plate during the eighth inning of Thursday’s game against the New Hampshire Wild.

“It’s amazing. Every time we get to these playoffs, it’s one-run games, and this was another tight one,” Thunderbirds manager Jerry Gonzalez said. “My guys busted their butts. They did everything they had to do to get the win today. I threw every starting pitcher at them, we threw everybody out there, gave them our best. I’m proud of my guys, I’m happy for them.

“My hats off to the New Hampshire Wild,” Gonzalez added. “It was a great series and they had a helluva season. Their manager, Scott Nathanson, did a great job with that team. It’s their first time making it to the finals, they deserved to be here, and really, I hope he’s chosen the league’s manager of the year. He deserves it.”

Both teams finished with seven hits. Palenchar paced Plattsburgh’s offense with a 3-for-5 performance and two runs scored. Right fielder Hiroki Itakura also had a big day at the plate. During the regular season he played on the same field with the Saranac Lake Surge and joined the Thunderbirds at the end of the regular season. Itakura smacked a solo homer in Wednesday’s series opener and then came through with a two-run shot over the right field fence in the fourth inning Thursday. Itakura finished with three RBIs.

Taylor Olmstead had two hits and one RBI in the win, and Taran Tani rapped out a single for the Thunderbirds.

Tani, a second baseman, started the season in Plattsburgh, was traded to the Surge, and then was dealt back to the Thunderbirds for their playoff run.

“I got traded to the Surge and then after the season I was traded back to Plattsburgh to help the team out,” Tani said. ” I left these guys but I was still good friends with them, I came back, just stepped right back in so it’s definitely an unreal feeling to win it with them.

“We just strung together the right hits at the right time, the pitchers came through big time and just pitched their butts off,” Tani continued. “They did a great job holding down the Wild offense, and those guys are good hitters.”

Patrick Sheehan and Ryan Rivera led the Wild with two hits each, and Mark Shkrelja, Ken Hutchinson and Donald Roethler had one hit each in the loss.

Chris Tessitore started on the mound for Plattsburgh and worked four and a third innings while earning the win. Zach Quinn, Dimitri Nunez and Silber were also pitchers utilized in the win.

Silber started the season with the Thunderbirds and moved up to play a stint with the New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League before returning to the Plattsburgh lineup.

” I’ve been starting all year for the most part, but I told Jerry I’m ready to go if needed today,” said Silber, a 22-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina. “I was lucky enough that the team put us up early, we kept the lead and it was fun coming in and closing for once. We have a talented team and we’re very close. We come ready to work every day and it’s a good bunch of guys on this team. Of course it’s a big deal, it’s a championship.”

Nathanson said errors proved costly for his team.

“We made some mistakes that we weren’t able to overcome,” he said. “We played hard, we certainly scored some runs. On a normal day, that might have been enough to win, but we gave up some that we shouldn’t have given up.

“I’m very proud of our guys. They worked very hard all year long,” Nathanson added. “They’re good people, they’ve learned, they’ve gotten smarter as baseball players. They’re very talented and we will be able to move guys up. I hope it’s sooner than later.”

Gonzalez said in the end, sticking together was his team’s key to success.

“If I can say one word about my team, it’s a family. These guys have been together all summer and they’ve grinded this thing out,” Gonzalez said. “They played every game together, I don’t think we fought one time. Everybody was positive, they played together as a team, as a whole, as a family. When you play like that in baseball, you usually win it.

“These guys are going to remember this for the rest of their lives and I’m just super proud of them.”

The Thunderbirds finished on top of the Empire League’s regular season standings with a 23-12 record and were 26-12 overall.

The Wild were 22-14 during the regular season and compiled a 23-16 record overall.

The title was the second for the Plattsburgh franchise, which claimed its first EPBL championship in 2017.