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Tough times hardened these TinCaps for run

So this is how it ends, then: With a whisper instead of a roar.

The whisper was the baseball, curling softly over the inside corner of the plate. It was TinCaps first baseman Lee Orr, bat sutured to his shoulder, bending in agony at the waist as the verdict came in.

Stee-rike three.

End of the ninth. End of the game. End of the season.

A called third strike, and here came the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers pelting madly out of their dugout, flinging their gloves toward the twilit sky. Rattlers 4, TinCaps 2, and the visitors were the champions of the Midwest League for 2012. They swarmed reliever Brent Suter, formed a dogpile on the mound, howled when the trophy appeared on the field.

And Orr? Long after the final pitch, he stood still as a millpond at the plate, staring out toward center field. Finally he flipped his bat around handle-first, pointedly drew a line in the dirt a couple of inches inside the plate, then turned and trudged off toward the home clubhouse.

“Terrible feeling,” Orr said a few minutes later as he cleaned out his locker for the last time. “And it sucks because you can’t come out tomorrow and play again. It’s over for a while.”

“Kind of sad it’s ended,” agreed Kyle Gaedele from the locker next door.

And if it was an ending as quiet as a benediction, that was befitting a final day in which the TinCaps were themselves deathly silent. Confounded by the off-speed stuff of Wisconsin pitchers Chad Thompson and Suter, they scratched out just five hits, only one after the third inning.

Nineteen of the last 20 TinCaps batters were retired, including the last 10.

Surely wasn’t the way you figured this team would go out, having scratched and clawed all season to reach such an unlikely place.

You wouldn’t have given a dime for the TinCaps’ chances in the first half of the season, when a young team played like a young team will. And you might not have given much more even three weeks ago, when they had to fight nearly to the season’s last day just to make the playoffs.

And yet … here they were Sunday, with a chance to force a Game 5 for the whole shebang. Wonder of wonders.

“We had a meeting with Jose (Valentin, the TinCaps manager) earlier today,” Gaedele said, “and he told us how proud he was of us for coming so far from the first half where we struggled a lot, to being a wild card team in the second half, and then getting all the way to the championship. I’m proud of everyone in here.”

And so was Valentin, of course. Sunday night he sat in his office for the last time and talked for a while about how hard his guys played, how they battled all year through “more hard times than good ones.” And how they never, ever quit.

“They not only went out there and played hard, but they taught me at some point … how to act, and how to handle hard times sometimes,” he said. “Like I said, it’s hard to take this punch and not be able to get it where you want to get it, which is a championship. But you know what?

“We battled to the last out.”

And they’ll take, into the postseason, more than a few valuable lessons. This is low-A ball, after all. It’s an elaborate, summerlong classroom that teaches kids how to be professionals, with everything that entails.

“The one thing I can take away from this year is I’ve just got to keep working,” Orr said as he packed Sunday night.

That’s not all they’ll take away.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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