This year’s version of the IronPigs is nothing if not predictable.
Saturday night’s International League North Division title-clinching win was a microcosm of the team’s first 131 games under first-year manager Gary Jones: often dramatic, always interesting.
Dean Anna, steady and gritty all season, saved two runs in the eighth inning of a tie game with a diving stop of Rey Navarro’s line drive and threw to teammate Mitch Walding to complete the double play to end the RailRiders’ threat.
“That was probably as far as he could stretch out,” Jones said of Anna, who also has been stellar while hitting in the leadoff spot most of this season.
Pedro Beato, who has 32 saves in 34 chances to go with seven wins in 2018, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the ninth.
With two outs and two on in the bottom of the inning, the respect Anna has earned came through when Scranton/Wilkes-Barre opted to walk him to get to J.P. Crawford.
Crawford has struggled mightily at the plate wherever he has been, batting a combined .157 entering the at-bat.
The 23-year-old, who snapped an 0-for-20 funk with a seventh-inning single, understood the move by the RailRiders.
“I had a feeling they were going to [intentionally walk Anna],” Crawford said. “[Shoot], I only had one or two hits [with the IronPigs].
“I was happy to have a good AB, get good wood on the ball, get the game-winning hit.”
Crawford’s hit scored pinch runner Ryan Goins, who came in after Zach Green hit a 1-2 pitch for a single with two outs to start the rally.
Logan Moore followed with a single to right on a 2-2 pitch to send Goins to third. After Anna walked, Crawford hit a 2-2 pitch down the line in right to send the IronPigs to the IL playoffs for the third consecutive year, fourth overall in 11 years of existence.
It was Lehigh Valley’s 11th walk-off victory this season and gave the club a 26-17 record in one-run games.
“The game tonight was the type of game we’ve played all year,” Jones said. “Tight. We got good, solid pitching, good defense, timely hitting.
“Offensively, we had to scratch and claw.”
Crawford’s hit ended a 9-for-75 (.120) stretch for the IronPigs with runners in scoring position.
Lehigh Valley (78-53) was struggling lately in all facets. It was 10-11 in August before Saturday, was last in the IL in team ERA (4.52), 11th in batting average (.248) plus played some shaky defense from what has been a stellar group.
There were many bumps in the road of a long season, but one thing has had a consistent presence.
“Everything starts in there,” Crawford said of the home clubhouse at Coca-Cola Park. “Everyone is great with one another. The camaraderie in the clubhouse is something, better than last year. I thought that was impossible.
“You hear it in there now. That’s how it is every day. That’s why it’s fun to come to the field every day.”
It hasn’t been fun for opponents, despite Lehigh Valley’s recent struggles.
“As good as we’ve been, we’ve been scuffling lately,” Beato said, “but one thing is that we have no finish. Our finish every game is the last out.”
“It’s so satisfying to see the joy in those guys’ eyes the way they are having fun now,” Jones added. “A lot of people outside that lockerroom don’t realize how much work they put in to get ready for the games.
“I have great satisfaction knowing the way they go about their business.”
Lehigh Valley will play the wild-card winner in first round of the IL playoffs, either Columbus, Indianapolis, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Norfolk or Toledo.
The IronPigs will be on the road for the first two games of that best-of-5 series on Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 5-6, followed by three home games (if necessary) Friday through Sunday, Sept. 7-9.
The Governors’ Cup best-of-5 is Tuesday, Sept. 11 through Sunday, Sept. 16, with the IronPigs (should they qualify) hosting the first two games before hitting the road for the last three.