Sports

Fish go deep for crown

Columbus Catfish left fielder Ryan Royster carried the burden of an .071 postseason batting average Thursday night heading into Game 3 of the South Atlantic League championship series.

‘‘Man, I need some hits,’’ Royster said a couple hours before the game.

His frustration was understandable considering he led the Catfish in the regular season with a .329 batting average, 30 homers and 98 RBI.

‘‘I want to be a part of this,’’ he said. ‘‘But right now, I can’t really be upset because my team is winning. It’s been fun watching us come through like we have.’’

Royster contributed more than his fair share to the cause in Columbus’ championship-clinching 6-0 victory over the West Virginia Power before an announced crowd of 1,317 at Golden Park.

In addition to belting a three-run homer that fall just inside the left field foul pole and extended Columbus’ lead to 4-0 in the sixth inning, he also triggered an unconventional 7-2-1-2 putout that denied West Virginia a run in the fourth inning.

‘‘This game was a way for me to redeem myself,’’ said Royster, who included a double in his 2-for-4 performance.

And it was an opportunity for an entire team to shine.

First baseman Matt Fields and third baseman Cesar Suarez also contributed high-rise home runs that provided more than enough support for a dominant pitching staff.

The Catfish’s sweep of the best-of-five series secured the first professional baseball championship for the city since the Astros captured the Southern League title in 1986 and tacked on another historical footnote. Before Thursday night, no other Columbus minor league team had ever executed a clean sweep of the postseason.

‘‘These guys have been going every day since April,’’ Catfish manager Jim Morrison said. ‘‘You say 140 ballgames and it doesn’t sound like many. But when you go every day with 15 days off in five months, that’s a long grind. That’s the one thing about baseball that people can’t appreciate some times. ... ‘‘Outstanding job by these guys.’’

While Columbus made quick work of its opponents, it had to wait a while to bask in the afterglow of its accomplishment. Game 3 was suspended in the third inning and delayed by rain for 1-hour and 54 minutes.

The intermission didn’t cool off the Catfish, who broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fifth when Fields hit a solo homer as prodigious as his 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame. Fields sent Jared Sutton’s 2-0 fastball traveling high above the center field wall, a journey estimated at 440 feet.

The Catfish broke the game open against Sutton, who relieved starter Donovan Hand after the rain delay. Sutton (0-1) surrendered five hits and four runs in 2 innings.

Columbus extended the lead to 4-0 after right fielder John Matulia (2-for-4) and catcher Nevin Ashley (2-for-4) singled in the bottom of the sixth. Royster followed with a towering shot to left field that banked off a Days Inn billboard.

Suarez added a two-run shot to deep left center field in the seventh inning to close out the scoring.

In the fourth inning, Royster helped the Catfish hold West Virginia scoreless by cleanly fielding John Alonso’s single and firing a perfect throw to home plate. Ashley lost the ball when Power left fielder Matt LaPorta knocked it loose on his slide, but it didn’t matter.

LaPorta slid wide of the plate. By the time he realized the mistake, pitcher Wilton Noel pounced on the ball and relayed it to Ashley, who applied the second-chance tag.

Columbus’ pitching staff maintained its postseason brilliance by committee. Starter Jeremy Hellickson worked three scoreless innings before the rain delay, but it didn’t really matter who was on the mound.

Wilton Noel (1-0) picked up the win, allowing two hits in three innings. He combined with Ryan Owen, Brian Baker and Neal Frontz combined to shut out a Power offense that led or ranked second in the league in 10 categories, holding them to four hits.

Baker has now pulled off a unique triple play, winning a state championship at Columbus High School, an NCAA Division II national title at Columbus State and now a minor league title.

As his teammates celebrated in the middle of Golden Park Thursday night, Baker considered the baseball accomplishments of a city that has counted a Little League World Series, high school state titles and a college national championship among its victories.

‘‘We’re very rich in baseball here,’’ Baker said.

Contact Troy Johnson at 706-320-4432 or johnsont@ledger-enquirer.com

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