SALT LAKE CITY — When Salt Lake Bees second baseman Matt Long stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday evening, he had just one thing going through his mind: “See the ball, hit the ball.”
Once he made contact, manager Keith Johnson tracked the ball with another thought: “Stay fair, stay fair — please stay fair.”
Long sent the ball up the first-base line and just barely beyond the right-field foul pole for a walk-off homer, giving the Bees an emotional 4-3 victory over Las Vegas in Game 1 of their Pacific Conference championship series at Spring Mobile Ballpark.
“I didn’t know it was going,” Long said of his 325-foot homer. “I didn’t really get it; I just hit to the right part of the yard, that little corner down there that gets short. (It was) just good placement, if anything.”
The hit completed the Bees’ come-from-behind rally in which they scored four unanswered runs after giving up three in the first three innings. The 51s used a combination of two singles and two walks to plate two runs in the top of the first, and then Mike Baxter scored following a third-inning triple to give Las Vegas an early 3-0 lead.
“He was a little bit erratic, which is unlike him, early on,” Long said of Bees starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker, who walked three but struck out four in six innings.
“Then he came in and pretty much shut the door on them like he has been,” Long said. “Shoe’s been huge for us, just throwing strikes and letting guys get the ball in play, and we were making plays behind him.”
Shoemaker set franchise records and led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts during the regular season with 184 1/3 and 160, respectively.
“He found a way to get through six innings tonight for us,” Johnson said. “(He) didn’t necessarily have his best stuff but made pitches when he had to”
Relievers Dustin Richardson, Jeremy Berg and Daniel Stange, who was credited the win, combined for three strikeouts and two walks across the final three innings.
“Our bullpen did a great job tonight,” Johnson said. “They came in and just went right at the guys and got the outs that we needed.”
The Bees started scoring in the fourth inning when Efren Navarro drove home Long with an RBI single, and then Luke Carlin earned an RBI when he drew a walk with no space, sending Navarro home. Center fielder Scott Cousins then sent Navarro home with a game-tying RBI single in the eighth inning, setting up Long’s ninth-inning at-bat.
“That’s the way we’ve played all year: grind it out,” Johnson said. “We stayed in it long enough and were able to come out and score one more than them tonight.”
Navarro and Cousins both finished the night 2 for 3 at the plate. Long was 1 for 4. Baxter was 2 for 4 for the 51s, leading a team with a scorching offense that led the Pacific Coast League with a .2873 batting average for the regular season. The Bees were a close second, hitting .2871.
“It’s the playoffs. You never know what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “You’re trying to take care of one game at a time. Tomorrow, regardless of how emotional or whatever this is, it’s just one game. We’re still locked in a series against a very good ballclub.”
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.