for the Great Falls Tribune
MISSOULA — The Great Falls Voyagers were the kings of the second half, but the first-half winners from Missoula channeled some of their early-season magic Saturday night at Ogren-Allegiance Field to extend their season in the Pioneer League playoffs.
The Osprey soared past Great Falls 11-1 with plenty of offense and a strong pitching performance from Jesse Darrah to keep their season alive and keep Great Falls out of the championship series for now.
The Great Falls loss means the teams will square off in a decisive Game 3 today in Missoula at 7:05 p.m. with the winner representing the North Division against either the Ogden Raptors or Orem Owlz from the South.
The Voyagers and Osprey looked like they were headed in different directions coming out of the gate in the first half of the season. The Osprey rolled to a 25—13 record on their way to winning the North Division in the first half while the Voyagers sputtered to a 17—21 mark. But Great Falls has gotten hot when it matters most, cruising to a 25—13 second-half record while Missoula won just 16 games.
None of that matters if Great Falls fails to record one more victory.
Standing in the Voyagers' way Saturday, Darrah worked six innings of three-hit ball for the Osprey and consistently baffled Great Falls hitters at the plate. The righty struck out eight batters, including three on called third strikes, and fanned five of six batters during one stretch from the fourth to seventh inning.
Darrah was 2—0 in previous matchups with Great Falls this season, including another eight-strikeout performance on Aug. 9, a fact that wasn't lost on him.
"I knew I'd had success," said Darrah, who helped Missoula win for just the second time in its last eight games. "I felt if I could throw my breaking balls for strikes early in the count, I could really expose (hitters) later with my fastball. And that's what I did."
The pitcher had plenty of run support from an Osprey team that managed only four hits in the series' opening game, an 8—3 Voyagers victory in Great Falls on Friday. Missoula pounded out 16 hits in the second game.
The scoring started early as the Osprey struck in the first inning. First baseman Ryan Court sent a 1—0 offering from Great Falls starter Pete Gehle over the center field fence. The home run was Court's eighth of the season and first of the playoffs.
But the Voyagers responded in the top of the next inning to knot the score at 1-1. With two outs, Martin Medina got on base with a line drive past the glove of a diving first baseman. Andrew Douglas followed with a walk and then Kyle Eveland singled to bring Medina around to score.
That early run was all the Voyagers could muster.
"We felt good coming up with a big hit there," said Eveland, who had two of the team's 14 total strikeouts. "I think we had the momentum for a little bit, we just failed to keep it.
"And credit their pitching," he continued. "(Darrah) threw everything for strikes. That can make it tough to hit out of a hole."
The hole came quickly and was eight runs deep by the end of the fourth inning.
The Osprey scored three in the third — two of which came after an easy third-out foul ball dropped through Medina's hands and allowed the inning to continue — and another four in the fourth.
Gehle's night ended before all those runners reached home in the fourth when the starter was pulled after recording just one out in the inning. He would eventually take the loss. Gehle left with the bases loaded, but they didn't stay that way for long.
Voyager reliever Sam Phippen threw a pitch in the dirt that bounced to the backstop letting one runner score. Court then cleared the remaining base runners with a single, his third hit of the game and part of his three RBIs.
Medina set the pace for Great Falls with two of the team's four hits and was the only Voyager batter without a strikeout on the day.
Great Falls will send Stephen McCray (3—4) to the mound in the rubber game against the Osprey's Raymond Hernandez (8—3). A win would send the Voyagers to their first championship series since 2008, when they won it all.
The Pioneer's best-of-three championship series will begin Tuesday at the Southern Division champion. The Northern Division winner will play host to Game 2 on Thursday and, if necessary, Game 3 on Friday.