There’s a strong argument to be made that the St. Paul Saints have been the gold standard when it comes to American Association baseball organizations. After all, they play in a trendy, state-of-the-art ballpark, average more than 8,000 per game in attendance and capture fans’ attention with their quirky in-game promotions.
But for all the Saints’ successes outside the lines and their perennial status as a title contender, there’s been something missing since they began play in this independent league in 2006.
That all changed Saturday night at CHS Field — and in grand style — when the Saints defeated the Sioux City Explorers 6-3 to sweep the best-of-five American Association Finals and win their first league crown. Chesny Young blasted the first pitch thrown by Explorers reliever Nate Gercken for a grand slam to deep left-center in the sixth inning, turning a 3-1 deficit into a 5-3 lead.
That was the key moment Saturday in the Saints winning their first championship in 15 years — a span that goes back to their 2004 Northern League title. In four other American Association Finals, including last year, St. Paul lost.
“I feels amazing. We’ve been so close over the last 15 years,’’ said Derek Sharer, the team’s general manager. “My first year in St. Paul was 2004, and we won with a dramatic grand slam. I thought we were going to do that every year. Of course, that’s not the way it ever works.’’
The victory also was special for Saints manager George Tsamis, who’s been at the helm for 16 years and deflected all the credit to his players.
“They never gave up,’’ he said. “These guys just stepped up and did a tremendous job.’’
The Game 3 victory followed the script of the Saints’ comeback ways in the postseason. In Tuesday’s Game 5 of the North Division title series, St. Paul trailed Fargo-Moorhead 5-0 after three innings and 7-5 going into the bottom of the eighth before pulling out a 9-7 win that capped a comeback from a 2-0 series deficit.
A crowd of 5,353 showed up Saturday and new Wild General Manager Bill Guerin threw out the first pitch, but Game 3 didn’t start well for the Saints, who fell behind in the first on Jeremey Hazelbaker’s three-run homer.
The tide turned in the sixth, with the Saints trailing 3-1. Explorers starter Taylor Jordan gave up singles to Brady Shoemaker and John Silviano. After Jeremy Martinez flied out, Jordan walked Josh Allen to load the bases. Explorers manager Steve Montgomery lifted Jordan in favor of reliever Nate Gercken.
Up came Young, who had a plan.
“I don’t normally cheat pitches, but I thought they were going to come fastball in,’’ said Young, a former Cubs farmhand. “He missed and left it middle.’’
Young deposited the pitch about 410 feet over the fence in left-center.
“That’s a pretty big dagger,’’ he said. “… I almost fainted coming around home plate.’’
“That’s what we’ve done here the last month — come up with clutch hits.’’
The Saints got four innings of scoreless relief with Jordan Jess picking up the win, and Tanner Kiest earning the save and ending the game with a double-play grounder that set off a loud celebration.
“I’m so happy for all these fans who had to wait so long,’’ Tsamis said. “We got it done.’’