Between the champagne celebration and the electrifying standing ovation at Chukchansi Park after winning the Pacific Coast League title, Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco walked up the tunnel to the clubhouse one last time.
And then the Bronx native, who loves to act macho and tough, paused for a brief moment and cried.
This might’ve been DeFrancesco’s first year with the Grizzlies after the Fresno franchise changed Triple-A affiliations to the Houston Astros.
But DeFrancesco spent this whole season carrying the weight of 17 years of flops and failures by a Fresno franchise that’s been a losing ball club for much of its existence.
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The Fresno Grizzlies are far from losers now.
The Fresno Grizzlies are PCL champs.
Top pitching prospect Mark Appel matched his career high with 10 strikeouts and Tyler White and Alex Presley each homered as the Grizzlies downed the Round Rock Express 7-3 in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday afternoon before an ecstatic announced crowd of 5,275 at Chukchansi Park.
The Grizzlies won back-to-back elimination games to win the Fresno franchise’s first Pacific Coast League title in its 18 years.
“We’re very proud that the city of Fresno got to experience a championship,” said DeFrancesco, who now has won four league championships in his 12 years managing in Triple-A. “When we came in February, that press conference, I was very confident with the group of guys I knew I was coming here with.
“These guys battled, grinded it out. Then you see the fans and their support, how happy they were. That’s what winning championships is about.”
The Grizzlies were awarded one final game, playing for the Triple-A national championship against the Columbus Clippers on Tuesday in El Paso, Texas.
Fresno, however, will have to win without its top starting pitcher after Dan Straily was called up by the Astros immediately after Sunday’s win. It’s unclear exactly who will start for the Grizzlies in the championship, though right-hander Chris Devenski could be the potential choice.
One skill these Grizzlies have mastered, though, is winning amid roster changes.
Most recently, the Grizzlies faced the Express without PCL MVP Matt Duffy, who was called up by the Astros just before the start of the series.
And still, the Grizzlies got to hold another lengthy round of champagne sprays and splashes afterward.
This time, it took place in Fresno, with many of the Grizzlies front office brass involved.
Everybody about a year ago was debating whether baseball would be alive in Fresno. We told people we had a great affiliate with the Houston Astros. And we’ve just proven it.
Fresno Grizzlies primary owner Chris Cummings
“Everybody about a year ago was debating whether baseball would be alive in Fresno,” said Grizzlies primary owner Chris Cummings, who was drenched with champagne by players inside the Chukchansi Park home clubhouse. “We told people we had a great affiliate with the Houston Astros.
“And we’ve just proven it. Now we’re going to try to become the national champions. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Outfielder L.J. Hoes busted out goggles then went around dousing pretty much anyone watching the celebration.
Before the team had retreated to the clubhouse, first baseman Jon Singleton and center fielder Andrew Aplin shook up a bottle of champagne and sprayed fans with some bubbly.
“It’s awesome to experience it in Fresno,” said Grizzlies reliever Jordan Jankowski, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings Sunday and got the Grizzlies out of a crucial jam during the sixth. “Like what Tony said at the beginning of the year: We were going to bring a championship to Fresno.
“It was cool to do it.”
The Grizzlies won back-to-back elimination games to take the title, with Sunday’s fortune heavily dictated by the arm of Appel, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2013 MLB amateur draft who had been up and down all season.
Turns out it was the dominant version of Appel who took the mound for most of Sunday while pitching perhaps the most pressure-filled moment of the 24-year-old’s professional career.
Appel allowed one run in the first, but then fired off four straight scoreless innings.
10Grizzlies pitcher Mark Appel matched his career-high for strikeouts in a game during his Game 5 victory against the Round Rock Express
“I don’t think I was too nervous,” Appel said. “I thought today was one of my best outings on the year as far as my stuff and location and consistency of it.
“It’s a great way to end my season and win Game 5. You can’t draw it up any better.”
It wasn’t until the sixth that he ran into a little more trouble as Appel served up a two-run homer over the center-field wall to Drew Robinson with two outs, reducing Fresno’s lead to 4-3.
But in the Grizzlies answered back with a three-run seventh inning, starting with a solo homer by Presley then a two-run double from Robbie Grossman.
Grizzlies second baseman Tony Kemp was named PCL playoffs MVP, hitting 3 for 4 with a run and two RBIs on Sunday and finishing .405 with nine RBIs in the postseason.
“All throughout the playoffs, we never were pressured,” Kemp said. “We had fun the whole time. It showed.
“It’s actually really special, especially for the city of Fresno.”
One more championship to go
TRIPLE-A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:
FRESNO VS. COLUMBUS
- Tuesday: 5:05 p.m. in El Paso, Texas
- Series format: One game on a pre-determined neutral field
- Of note: The Grizzlies no longer have starting pitcher Dan Straily, who was scheduled to start Tuesday. The 26-year-old was called up by the parent club Houston Astros shortly after the Grizzlies’ victory Sunday for the PCL championship