SPRINGDALE -- Entering Sunday's regular-season finale against Springfield, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals found themselves on the outside looking in as far as qualifying for the Class AA-Central Championship Series.
The Naturals (64-55) were a half-game behind Arkansas and a game back of Frisco for the final spot. So, the Naturals needed both of those teams to lose their final game, while taking care of business with a victory at Arvest Ballpark.
Northwest Arkansas did its part, rallying from a 3-2 deficit in the seventh inning to defeat the Cardinals, 9-4. All the while, the Naturals were intensely watching the scoreboard for the other games. Arkansas was eliminated with an 11-6 loss to Wichita, then Frisco squandered a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, falling to Amarillo, 14-11 in 10 innings.
When Naturals center fielder Blake Perkins squeezed Luken Baker's fly ball for the final out in the ninth, the team rushed to celebrate their first postseason appearance since 2017.
"It was a pretty intense day with all the scenarios floating around, but at the end of the day our guys just did their thing," Naturals Manager Scott Thorman said. "They just did what they have been doing all year, which is playing sound baseball, and going out and giving a great effort. It worked out for us, so we are excited to go to the finals. We got a little bit of help and we took advantage of it."
With covid protocols in effect this season, the playoffs will consist only of a championship series between the two teams with the top two records regardless of division.
The Naturals will host Wichita, which finished with the best record in the league, on Tuesday in Game 1 of the best-of-5 series. Game 2 will also be at Arvest Ballpark on Wednesday, with both games beginning at 6:30 p.m. The remainder of the series will be played in Wichita.
Northwest Arkansas went 15-9 down the stretch, winning three of its last four series and splitting the other one. The Naturals won the season series 10-8 against the Wind Surge, the Class AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins.
"I think being battle-tested going into it is an advantage, because everybody is comfortable playing in tight games," Thorman said. "The last couple of weeks, almost every game was on the line to even give ourselves a chance to get where we are today. It's pretty incredible what had to happen for us to be in this situation. Credit to our guys for sticking with it and getting the job done."
Springfield broke the ice in the top of the first on Sunday, as Ivan Herrera hit his 17th home run of the season over the left field wall to put the Cardinals up 1-0.
The Naturals then took the lead with a two-out rally in the third. Perkins got is started with a line-drive single to center, then stole his eighth base of the season. Clay Dungan walked after an eight-pitch at-bat, setting the table for Vinny Pasquantino's two-run single to left.
Naturals lefty Angel Zerpa worked his way into the fourth, before allowing two singles and a walk to load the bases. Matt Kopernial tied the score 2-2 with a single off relief pitcher Nolan Watson, driving in Justin Toerner.
Baker's seventh-inning homer put Springfield back in front 3-2, but the Naturals scored four runs in the bottom half of the inning to take control.
Jimmy Govern doubled on a sharp fly ball to center, and came around to score when Perkins reached on a Cardinal error. After Dungan singled, Jeison Guzman executed a perfect suicide-squeeze bunt to score a sliding Perkins. Meibrys Villoria's single brought home Dungan and Guzman, giving the Naturals a 6-3 advantage.
Thorman is no stranger to success. The former first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in 2000, managed High-A Wilmington to the Carolina League Championship last season, and Class A Lexington to the South Atlantic League title in 2018. Each year, he has found a way to deal with the constant roster shifts of minor league baseball.
"We had a lot of movement with our roster this year, but the guys that came up from High-A ball slid right in and picked up the slack," Thorman said. "These guys came in ready to play and perform. There is a lot of consistency with the Kansas City Royals organization and our expectations. Now, we are three wins away from really sealing the deal."
WIND SURGE 11, TRAVELERS 6
The Arkansas Travelers' season came to an end Sunday afternoon in a loss to the Wichita Wind Surge at Riverfront Ballpark in Wichita, Kan.
The Travs finished in third place in the North Division at 64-56, five games behind Wichita and a half-game behind Northwest Arkansas.
Julio Rodriguez finished 3 for 5 with a RBI double for the Travs. Joe Rizzo also had three hits, including a two-run double.
Also for Arkansas, Jake Anchia, Jose Caballero and Jake Scheiner each drove in a run.
Class AA-Central Championship Series
NW ARKANSAS NATURALS VS. WICHITA WIND SURGE
All times Central
(Best-of-5; x-if necessary)
Wichita at NW Arkansas, 6:30 p.m.
Wichita at NW Arkansas, 6:30 p.m.
NW Arkansas at Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
x-NW Arkansas at Wichita, 7:05 p.m.
x-NW Arkansas at Wichita, 5:05 p.m.
$7 general admission, 12 and under free with a paid ticket. Gates open at 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. All general admission seating is first come, first serve.