The Miller 45s locked up team of the decade honors and cemented their place in 16-inch history with a dominating performance in last year’s Forest Park Invitational title game last July 29.
The 45s shellacked Windy City Limousine 15-2 in the championship game after bouncing Windy City 14-6 in the winner’s bracket final. The victory gave the 45s their fourth Forest Park Invitational title in the past six years, and sixth overall. The 45s are also four-time defending American Softball Association 16-inch National champs.
That elite résumé places the 45s atop the sport’s Olympus along with such legendary teams as the Bobcats, Sobees, Whips, Bud North/Splinters and Lettuce.
Co-MVPs pitcher Rick Gancarz and shortstop Jeff Berger led the way, but the victories were solid team efforts that featured lock-down defense and explosive bats.
Berger stepped up big the one time the 45s were in any real trouble against Impact on Saturday night. The Berwyn native took over pitching duties from Gancarz with the 45s trailing 6-8 after being down 6-2. He shut down the Impact bats the rest of the way and scored the winning run in the eighth inning to advance the team to the winner’s final game.
The Forest Park tournament was played over four days from July 26 to July 29.
Teammates and fans hailed Berger as the best in the game, but the player chalked it up to luck.
“I’ve been lucky,” Berger said afterward. “I play with some great ballplayers, so I get opportunities.”
The 45s didn’t need a savior against Windy City in the winner’s bracket final. The rest of Berger’s teammates came out swinging as the 45s cruised to a 14-6 victory. In the championship, the 45s scored in all seven innings, leading 6-0 after two innings and 11-0 after five.
Gancarz had the hot bat all weekend, hitting .667 with a homer, nine runs batted in and nine scored. After running neck and neck with Gancarz at the plate through the first four games, Berger had a quiet championship game going 0 for 4, but turned in numerous sterling defensive plays to back up Gancarz’s pitching.
Punch’s Joe Zabrataski had a hellacious tournament at the plate despite his team losing its opener and playing all weekend in the loser’s bracket. Zabrataski won the batting title with 17 hits in 22 at bats for a .773 average, 11 RBIs and 13 runs scored. Tony Prochenski of Mudville won the homerun title, slamming two.
Those teams frustrated by the 45s near lock on major tournament titles the past six years may feel some relief that Gancarz and others could be stepping back a bit after this season.
Gancarz noted that “roughly 80 percent” of the team turned 40 this year. That made their accomplishment, as a team and individually, extra sweet. His second MVP trophy, Gancarz said, felt great.
“It’s better when you’re older,” Gancarz said. “It’s so tough to do it when you’re younger. It’s great to do it when you’re older.”