Mike Andrulis watches the Barrie Baycats celebrate winning their fifth straight IBL championship. David Bebee/Record staff
Greg Mercer/Record staff
KITCHENER — When the last out landed harmlessly in the outfielder’s mitt, Mike Andrulis kept running, then stood at home plate and watched the Barrie Baycats celebrate.
He’d never been this close to winning an Intercounty Baseball League championship, and it was hard to see another team pop champagne on his home field.
“It’s tough,” said Andrulis, the Kitchener Panthers’ veteran second baseman. “This is the best season I’ve ever had. I’ve never been this far.”
His Panthers battled their way to Game 6 of the IBL final, but were eventually worn down by a juggernaut Baycats team that won 6-3 and its fifth consecutive league title.
When the season started, few IBL watchers predicted Kitchener would make it this far, with a rookie coach and having lost some of their most impactful sluggers to the Guelph Royals.
“I think we showed people we weren’t as bad as some said we were going to be,” Andrulis said.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys on this team, and (manager Luke Baker) put us in a position to win. But we just couldn’t do it. We’ve got some work to do in the off-season, and next year.”
The Panthers were leading until the seventh inning Thursday night, when two home runs altered the course of the game — and a dramatic bat flip changed the tone.
After hitting a go-ahead, two-run shot off Mike Schnurr, Barrie’s Starlin Rodriguez stood at home plate and admired his homer as it left the ballpark, before flipping his bat high into the air in celebration. The Panthers took exception to the showboating, and both benches emptied when Rodriguez shoved catcher Mike Gordner as he came home.
The former St. Louis Cardinals prospect was ejected for his antics, as was Schnurr, who threw behind the next batter. Afterward, the Panthers skipper said he felt Rodriguez crossed a line.
“As far as I’m concerned, in the middle of the game, it’s completely unnecessary,” said Baker. “It’s one of those unwritten rules you just don’t do.”
The drama made for a tense ending to a Panthers season that defied a lot of skeptics. Baker said the Panthers would be gunning for the championship again next year.
“It’s frustrating the way it ended, and it’s a tough pill to swallow,” the manager said. “But I can’t be more proud of the guys. They were fighting tooth and nail to try to make things happen. We played hard, and we played for each other.”
Barrie’s manager, Angus Roy, chalked the bat flip up to an emotional outburst, after his team came back and had a big inning against Schnurr — who he called “probably the best reliever of the entire year.”
“It’s been an emotional series, and the emotions just came out on Starlin’s swing,” Roy said. “That’s baseball. When you’re battling that hard, that’s a huge momentum swing.”
Tanner Nivins, the Panthers’ centrefielder, said it was a regrettable incident in an otherwise great series.
“We do respect each other, but unfortunately in the heat of the moment sometimes we do things that if we look back on it we may want to change. I hope they view it that way,” Nivins said.
But he was more emphatic about the support the Panthers felt during their playoff run — including an estimated 1,900 people who packed into Jack Couch Park for the final game.
“That was a lot fun,” he said. “I’m just so thankful for the community. These crowds were unbelievable cheering behind us, up and down.”
The result isn’t what they wanted, Nivins said. But the ending doesn’t tarnish a remarkable season, he said, including a 24-12 record in the regular season and sweeping the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“I’ve never been more proud to have teammates like these guys. We had a lot of special moments that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” Nivins said. “That’s the stuff I’ll remember when I’m done playing.”