CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s going to take more than the Midwest League’s hottest team and the league’s hottest pitcher to end the Quad-Cities River Bandits’ season.
The Bandits walked into Perfect Game Field on Thursday night and walked out with a 4-2 victory over the Cedar Rapids Kernels and a sweep of their opening-round best-of-three series in the Midwest League playoffs.
The Kernels had the best overall record and the best home record of any team in the league this season, but they went 6-13 against Quad-Cities. They managed to collect just three runs and eight hits in the two-game set.
"It's a great feeling to put away a good team like that,'' Bandits winning pitcher Joe Bircher said. "We came here confident that we could get it done and we did. We've had their number all season.''
The Bandits will host the Beloit Snappers in the first game of the Western Division championship series Saturday night at Modern Woodmen Park. Beloit advanced Thursday with a 6-2 victory over Clinton.
Cedar Rapids starting pitcher Tim Shibuya had been nearly unhittable in his first 10 games with the Kernels — he had a 0.96 earned-run average — but the Bandits handled him better than anyone else had Thursday.
They broke open a 1-1 game with a three-run fourth inning that began with a solo home run by one of the league’s hottest hitters, third baseman Rio Ruiz. Roberto Pena followed with an infield hit and Jordan Scott reached on a bunt single. After Brian Blasik bunted both of them over, Teoscar Hernandez singled both of them in to make it 4-1.
Ruiz also scored the first Bandits run on a double to left by Pena.
Shibuya, who hurled a four-hit complete-shutout against Clinton on Saturday, was tagged for four runs and nine hits in six innings of work.
Bircher gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Jonathan Murphy, then allowed only two other baserunners in his five innings of work to get the win. Bircher was only 3-3 in the regular season, but all three wins came on the road and one of his best games of the season was a victory at Cedar Rapids on Aug. 3.
The Kernels added a run in the sixth inning off reliever J.D. Osborne, but didn’t get another baserunner the rest of the way. Patrick Christensen struck out Travis Harrison to end the sixth on his way to retiring seven straight batters.
Andrew Walter, who struck out the side in the ninth inning of the opener Wednesday, retired the Kernels in order again in the final inning to notch the save.
"Our pitchers have had it going,'' Ruiz said. "The starters are doing the job and the bullpen, it was phenomenal tonight. J.D. Osborne came in and threw well, Christensen came in strong and Walter, nobody's touching him.''