GIFFORD — The clock struck midnight on the Eastern Illinois Baseball League's Cinderella team at a heartbreaking time.
The Paxton Swedes were three outs away from winning the league's tournament championship as they led 3-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning of game two of the championship series on Sunday.
The Royal Giants scored three runs, however, propelling them to a 4-3 victory.
"We were right there," Swedes player/manager Mark Prina said. "We did everything right. We competed, but those last three outs are always the toughest to get."
The Swedes never recovered as the Giants took game three in convincing fashion via 10-2 score.
"That's a tough situation when you have a letdown like that," Prina said.
"Paxton had to be down a little bit, but they gave us all we could handle," Royal manager Tim Dillman added. "It wasn't a gimme, that's for sure. They're a good team."
As a result of their wins in games two and three, the Giants claimed their first tournament championship since 2013.
"It feels great," Dillman said. "We had a great group of kids and family and crowd support. I just wanted to do it for the crowd because they deserve it in Royal."
The Swedes, meanwhile, are still looking for their first tournament title since 2007, a year that capped a six-year run in which Paxton won five titles.
"That was one of the best teams that have ever been in this league. The last few years, we've been one of the worst teams, and to make this kind of a transition, when you can finally start to see it coming together and moving in the right direction, and to get to this point this year, makes me feel pretty good," Prina said.
"We've got some more Paxton kids that we have on our radar. I think we have some local kids coming who can help us. I think we can put an even better team together next year. I'm looking forward to it, for sure."
The Swedes entered the six-team league's tournament as the fifth seed -- which makes the fact that they were three outs away from claiming the championship over the second seed bittersweet, Prina said.
"Nobody in their right mind thought we had a chance in this tournament, and we could have easily walked out of here with a championship," Prina said. "From that standpoint, what a turnaround it has been for our program.
"I'm really proud of these guys for competing. This experience will help us as we move forward – being in this situation and this atmosphere. That's a good team. On paper, they're better than us. There's no question about that, and we almost stole a championship from them."
Cody Flowers led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a single to center field for the Giants (16-9) before Adam Carver singled to right field and Roberto Gonzalez sent Flowers home with a base hit to right field.
"Jake (Hensgen) didn't make bad pitches. They were at the top of the order, and they're tough outs. He threw some nice pitches at the leadoff hitter, and he kept fighting them off, and then he finally got a base. Then they get the bloop hit – that's baseball. It happens," Prina said.
Thomas Wolken drew a walk to load the bases, but Nick Bates flied out to Cooper Johnson in left field for the one and only out of the bottom of the ninth inning.
Brandon Sparks singled past a diving effort from Swedes third-baseman Hunter Phelps into left field to send Carver home for the tying run.
"We were still a ground ball away from winning it, and the ground ball went right through," Prina said. "If (Phelps) turns the double play, we win there. It is a game of inches. We competed."
Cribbett sent Gonzalez home for the game-winning with a ground ball that was bobbled by second-baseman Tanner Regez.
"That shows some resilience on those kids. That's why we play. The 27th out is the hardest one to get in this game," Tim Dillman said. "They didn't give up. They had confidence in themselves, and we got it done."
"That's why they were one of the better teams in the league, and they proved that today, even though we had them on their ropes," Prina added.
Paxton (11-15) led 2-0 after scoring two runs in the top of the third inning.
Mark Miller led off the inning with a single to left-center field before Tanner Regez reached base on an error and Noah Darr singled to right field to load the bases.
Phelps drew a walk to send Miller across home plate before Regez scored on a fielder's choice ground ball hit by Johnson.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Flowers walked, but Carver reached base on a fielder's choice and Gonzalez singled to center field, on which an error in the outfield put runners on second and third base.
Wolken grounded out to send Carver across home plate to decrease Royal's deficit to 2-1 and advance Gonzalez to third base, but Gonzalez would be left stranded as Johnson made a sliding catch in foul territory on a fly ball hit by Bates.
After the fifth inning, Cam Robinson was relieved on the mound by Hensgen after allowing one run on eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts.
Hensgen took the loss on the mound as he allowed three runs on five hits and three walks with three strikeouts through four innings.
Prina was debating on whether to put Hensgen in relief for game two or to start him for game three.
"We kind of threw all of our chips in trying to win (game two). (Hensgen) might have given us a better chance in that third game, but we thought we had a chance to win (game two), and we went after it," Prina said. "When you're the underdog, you've got to take any chance you can get to go win it, and we took that chance. We just fell three outs short."
The Swedes extended their lead to 3-1 in the top of the eighht inning as Darr and stole second base before scoring on a Johnson single to right field.
That would be the last run given up by Carver, who allowed three runs on six hits and three walks with 10 strikeouts through nine innings after receiving the award for the EI League's Most Outstanding Pitcher.
"We took the best pitcher in the league and had him beat," Prina said.
In the bottom of the first inning of game three, Sparks hit a one-out single to left field and Roberto Gonzalez reached base on an error before Sparks scored on a wild pitch and Nick Bates singled to center field to send Gonzalez across home plate to give Royal a 2-0 lead.
Sparks tripled to center field with one out in the third inning before scoring on a Gonzalez groundout to extend the Giants' lead to 3-0.
Darr singled with one out in the top of the fourth inning before Phelps singled to center field and Stohne Stetler walked to load the bases before Alan Paul drew a walk to send Darr across home plate to cut Paxton's deficit to 3-1.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, Cribbett hit an infield single before scoring on a sequence of two throwing errors on a pickoff attempt to make the score 4-1.
Miller led off the top of the fifth inning with a walk before advancing to second base on a Regez groundout and to third base on a passed ball. Darr then hit an RBI single to cut the Swedes' deficit to 4-2.
"We hit the ball hard early, but right at people. We could have maybe jumped out to a lead there, and that game might have been a little different," Prina said.
Flowers drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fifth inning before Sparks hit an infield single and Gonzalez doubled to center field to send Flowers and Sparks across home plate, leading to Charlie Due being relieved on the mound by Tristan Wolfe.
Due took the loss on the mound as he allowed seven runs on six hits and three walks through four innings.
"Charlie kept us in the game, and then we had one bad inning where it kind of got away from us," Prina said. "Tristan came in and did a nice job. He kept us there."
Three more runs were scored by the Giants in the fifth inning before Carver hit an RBI triple to right field in the seventh inning.
"It was a great crowd. Both fans were having fun. The games were intense. It was a fun series. I think it was fun for everybody," Prina said. "It's fun to win at home in front of our home fans with the home kind of the mound – Sullivan – who gives us a chance to win a championship. It's fun to compete, and I think the fans enjoyed it. They're into it because they're competitive people."
"It was a great series," Dillman added.
The 11-win mark for Paxton is a seven-victory improvement from its 4-18 record in 2017. The Swedes' tournament championship appearance was their first since 2009.
"It was a good end to the season," Prina said. "Obviously, winning (the tournament championship) would have been a lot better, but I'm proud of the way we played the game down the stretch and of the way we competed as a team. Hopefully, most of these guys will be back, and we'll find a few more pieces to the puzzle – maybe another pitcher or two, and another couple of hitters – and we can be right back here next year.
"I really believe that, but we've got to get guys to commit and be here all year long. These guys who finished out (the year) did that, and that's why we became a nice team. We grew together as a team and started to trust each other and learned to play the game the right way."