Dragons fall short of playoff bid, but sixth straight win clinches share of division title

Dragons shortstop Matt McLain throws a runner out at first during Sunday's final game of the season against Fort Wayne at Day Air Ballpark. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED
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Dragons shortstop Matt McLain throws a runner out at first during Sunday's final game of the season against Fort Wayne at Day Air Ballpark. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

Like a close game coming down to the final at-bat, the Dayton Dragons finished the season doing everything necessary on their final six-game homestand to stay in the playoff chase.

The Dragons went 6-0.

Going into Saturday’s game they were still alive for the second spot in the High-A Central League best-of-five championship series. But the help ran out Saturday night the minute Cedar Rapids won.

Life, however, did not go out of the Dragons. They finished the eighth winning season in the franchise’s 21 seasons and won a share of the East Division title with a 5-3 victory over Fort Wayne on Sunday at Day Air Ballpark.

“We showed a lot of fight, we showed a lot of resilience,” Dragons outfielder Quin Cotton said. “Everybody stepped up in a big way and we played some of our best ball toward the end of the season. We’re really, really proud of that.”

Matt McLain hit a two-run inside-the-park home run in the first inning and Juan Martinez hit a three-run homer in the sixth inning to ensure a 65-55 record and a tie with Lake County for first place in the division.

The Dragons entered the week four games back and needed to pass Cedar Rapids, Lake County and Great Lakes. They won in the 10th inning Friday night and entered the weekend needing Cedar Rapids and Lake County to lose twice. Both won Saturday. Cedar Rapids won Sunday to make the playoffs.

“Ending the year on a good note is huge,” outfielder Michael Siani said. “We didn’t get to the playoffs, which kind of sucks, but we made it close. Being in that kind of hunt and coming in and having something more to play for has been great.”

The Dragons spent most of the first half of the abbreviated 120-game season in first place in the East and were in first at the midpoint at 34-26. In past seasons, that would have given the Dragons the first-half division championship and a playoff berth. But the season began with no plans for playoffs. However, plans changed in the early summer to hold a championship series with the two best teams regardless of division.

The Dragons were more up and down in the second half and fell behind Lake County and Great Lakes. Their final day in first place before Sunday was in a tie with Lake County on August 20. All of their starting pitchers were promoted, and the lineup had its share of changes. They went 9-11 over the next 20 games, but the won eight of their last nine.

“We absolutely love playing together,” Cotton said. “I know a lot of teams 120 games in would all want to go home. But we had so much fun playing together that if we went to the playoffs or if not, we were just going to have a great time and play hard.”

The Dragons showed that spirit on Sunday in gaining the early lead. And pitchers Christian Roa, Spencer Stockton, Stevie Branche and Pedro Garcia scattered 10 hits and struck out 10 to make the home runs be enough.

When Garcia struck out the final batter of the season, he gestured victoriously and let out a yell. Then the players went through the final postgame victory line with the coaching staff. Instead of fist bumps and high fives, there were hugs.

“When you play professional baseball or any type of professional sport it’s about winning, and we have to develop that mindset,” Dragons manager Jose Moreno said. “Every day you wake up you compete. So we come over here today to have the opportunity to be the division champion.”