The first glove to fly into the air was Taylor Gushue’s. About two hours earlier he was the one who jump-started the Marauders’ early rally with a solo home run in the second, and after nine innings behind the plate he was as quick to celebrate as anyone.
First came his helmet, which he ripped off and flung into the night above McKechnie Field as soon as Pablo Reyes’ toss landed in first baseman Kevin Kramer’s glove for the final out of the Florida State League Championship Series. Off came his glove, next, which followed the same trajectory as his helmet. Then there were showers — more gloves followed, dropping from the sky like a Florida rainstorm; cheers cascaded from the 657 fans who had packed tightly along the baselines in Bradenton; a bucket of Gatorade was raced into the infield by a pair of relievers then emptied upon a mosh pit at the pitcher’s mound.
For some, it was a celebration seven years in the making. The Marauders’ 4-1 win against the Yankees in Game 4 of the championship series Monday gave Bradenton its first league title since the club’s inception in 2010.
For the 25 players with the Pirates’ Class A Advanced affiliate — most of whom were still high school students in 2010, probably unable to pick out Bradenton on a map — it was a first professional championship, the culmination of long bus rides through small towns in Florida and beyond.
“We just talked about it in there after,” manager Michael Ryan said after nearly 30 minutes of celebrating with trophies and champagne. “Just enjoy this night, understand all the hard work — all the blood, sweat and tears you went through all year.
“We expected this coming out of spring training, we prepared for it, and for it to come true is just absolutely amazing.”
The Marauders, who have been assured playoff position since winning the South division’s first-half title, needed only six games to get the five wins necessary to hoist the Watson Spoelstra FSL Championship Trophy. They hit as well as they have all season, belting nine home runs in six games. They fielded masterfully, committing only one error in the postseason. And they got five strong starts, including a pair from the unlikely winning pitcher in both clinching games.
This is by far the best that we’ve played all year, and that’s the goal is to play the best at the end of the year and we did.
Michael Ryan, Marauders manager
JT Brubaker slogged through the regular season with a 5.32 ERA while allowing 77 hits in 67 2/3 FSL innings. He took the mound in Game 2 of the FSL semifinals, shutting out the Mets for six innings on Wednesday for his best start of the year.
Five days later he was back on the mound with a chance to clinch the title. For another six innings, Brubaker (2-0) pitched like an ace. He struck out five batters and scattered five hits. Tampa’s only run came on a second-inning solo home run by first baseman Kevin Cornelius.
“Coming down the stretch it just all went together. That was kind of how it was in West Virginia right before I got called up here. It was all clicking and then coming here I think it was just more of the level change,” Brubaker said. “Once I figured out and got a couple starts under my belt everything started to work out.”
Cornelius’ solo homer briefly gave the Yankees their only lead of the game. Gushue answered with a solo homer off Tampa starter Josh Rogers (0-1) two batters into the top of the third — Bradenton was technically the road team for Games 3 and 4 as George M. Steinbrenner Field underwent renovations in Tampa — then put the Marauders ahead for good with a sacrifice fly to drive in Jordan Luplow in the top of the fifth. Michael Suchy, a Bradenton native and Southeast High School alumnus, followed Gushue’s sacrifice with an insurance run on an RBI groundout to third.
The Marauders handed the ball to relief pitcher Tanner Anderson with confidence and a 3-1 lead, and he finished the season with three dominant innings of relief for his second playoff save.
“We talked about, before the playoffs even started, that we had to play five perfect games,” Ryan said, “and that’s exactly what they did.”
As Bradenton posed with the trophy on the field, Trevor Gooby, Pittsburgh’s longtime director of Florida operations, watched with a grin on his face.
He has been in Manatee County since before the Marauders were even an extensive thought, first assisting with the Gulf Coast League Pirates and spring training when he was hired in 2004.
On Sept. 22, he will leave Bradenton to take a job in Seattle as the Mariners’ vice president of ballpark operations. He’s known his time was coming to an end for about two weeks, and an FSL championship was about the only thing missing from his resume. After seven years with the Marauders, he can leave a champion.
“I’ve never won a Florida State League,” Gooby said. “It’s exciting because I was in the meetings when we started planning this team. To go from inception, to now, to winning the championship — it’s just hard work, and the staff did a great job and the players did a great job.”
2010: 76-62 record, 2nd half champs, lost division round to Charlotte, 2-1
2011: 74-63 record, 2nd half champs, lost division round to St. Lucie, 2-1
2014: 78-61 record, 2nd half champs, lost division round to Fort Myers, 2-0
2016: 70-66 record, 1st half champs, won championship series over Tampa, 3-1