AKRON Maybe it really is Northeast Ohio’s year in sports.
On May 14, just hours after ESPN aired the documentary "Believeland," which chronicled the region's decades-long sports futillity, Cleveland native Stipe Miocic knocked out Fabricio Werdum to capture the MMA heavyweight championship.
Less than a month later, the Lake Erie Monsters (now the Cleveland Monsters) captured the AHL Calder Cup in a thrilling four-game sweep of the Hershy Bears.
Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers broke the city’s 52-year major sports title drought in June with their first NBA title.
Now, the Akron RubberDucks have added more championship gold to the region.
The RubberDucks clinched the fifth Eastern League title in franchise history with a 3-0 sweep of Trenton in the league finals, completing an improbable last-season run that began in mid-August when they were 58-60, third in the EL Western Division and trending downward in a hurry.
What followed was a blistering run through the final two weeks of the regular season, a division title won on the final day and a 6-1 postseason culminating in a 2-1 Game 3 win to sweep the Thunder.
“As much as I’d like to say that I saw it coming, I didn’t see it coming the way it did, going 27-6 down the stretch including the playoffs,” third-year manager Dave Wallace said of the late-season push. “It was really special and I knew it was possible because we had a lot of great people who had a part in it.”
The championship was memorable for players, coaches and staffers alike, but Wallace conceded that it may have meant a little more to the nine players who were with the team at both the beginning and end of the season.
Those players, including relievers Louis Head and Grant Sides, infielders Eric Stamets and Nellie Rodriguez and outfielder Jordan Smith, saw teammates comes and go through trades and promotions, but were among a small group able to say they were there at the beginning and end of a championship campaign.
Not only did those players develop a special bond, according to Wallace, but they also did a good job of imparting the team’s way of approaching the game and their craft to all of the new players who came into their clubhouse. It was part of the culture the organization is constantly trying to build and judging by the fact that the Cleveland Indians organization had teams make the postseason at all levels of the minors - and the major-league club appears headed there as well - those efforts are paying off.
As unlikely as the title may have seemed as recently as mid-August, Wallace said the RubberDucks checked every box when it came to what’s required of a champion.
“Everything a championship team does, we did,” Wallace said. “The way our guys played on the field, but also how our guys took care of themselves off the field, dealing with adversity through the year …. struggles at the plate and struggles on the mound.”
The postseason was a microcosm of the entire year for Akron, which won some playoff games by bludgeoning opponents with its offense, but allowed just 10 runs in its final five playoff games thanks to stellar starting pitching.
Starter Nick Pasquale was one of the stars of the playoffs, starting twice and pitching 13 2/3 innings while allowing just five hits and one earned run while striking out 10.
Head finished off both of Pasquale’s starts, earning the win with two scoreless innings in a 1-0, 10-inning triumph over Altoona in the division championship series, then notching his second save of the postseason with a scoreless inning in the clincher at Trenton. For the postseason, Head didn’t allow an earned run and cemented his status as one of the stalwarts of the bullpen.
When it was all over, as the final out was recorded on Head’s strikeout of Miguel Andjuar, the RubberDucks bolted from the dugout at Arm & Hammer Park, mobbing each other near the mound and celebrating a championship few expected them to win. It was a special moment for players and coaches alike, as Wallace and his staff won their first title with Akron.
“Really, it was just pure elation,” Wallace recalled. “There was just a feeling of pride and satisfaction and that bond we all felt together. We accomplished something special together, and that includes the coaching staff, players and the whole organization, up through the coordinators and the front office.”
While there may not be a massive parade drawing 2 million people as the Cavs enjoyed after their title win, the feeling of reaching the peak is nonetheless sweet for the RubberDucks. It was a memorable end to an enjoyable summer of baseball at Canal Park and when next season opens, there will be another championship banner decal adorning the right field wall in downtown Akron.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB