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WEARY BISONS RETURN WITHOUT SERIES TITLE

In time, the Buffalo Bisons will be able to thump their chests proudly about their International League championship.

But the Herd was to return home early today still smarting over how an unknown New Orleans outfielder did a pretty good Reggie Jackson impersonation and ended its season late Friday night at Cashman Field.

Lance Berkman clubbed three home runs -- the last one a 460-foot monster to dead center field -- as the Zephyrs overcame the Bisons, 12-6, in Game Four of the Triple-A World Series.

New Orleans won the inaugural series, three games to one, ending Buffalo's season 2,500 miles away from home and long after most Bison fans had gone to bed. The 3-hour, 46-minute affair was completed at 3:26 Eastern time Saturday morning.

A majority of the players were to return to Buffalo on a "red-eye" flight Saturday night. They will then attend a rally to celebrate the Herd's IL championship today at 4 p.m. in North AmeriCare Park.

The team will show off the Governors' Cup it won for the first time since 1961 with last week's five-game victory over Durham. It won't, however, have the other piece of hardware it hoped to bring home.

"We had opportunities to win this ballgame and their pitching stepped up," manager Jeff Datz said after the series finale. "We've had a great year and it's a little frustrating right now. We sure would have liked to win this thing, but you have to tip your hat to those guys in the other clubhouse."

New Orleans, a Houston affiliate, was clearly the better team in this series as the Bisons' lineup was weakened by the call-up to Cleveland of IL all-star Alex Ramirez (.299-34-103). New Orleans, by contrast, had no call-ups made by the Astros since Sept. 1

The Zephyrs hit .312 in the series, while the Bisons were at .244 -- 38 points below their regular-season average. The Zephyrs had eight home runs and Buffalo had only two after connecting for a franchise-record 206 in the regular season.

New Orleans also had the edge on the mound, with a 4.89 team ERA compared to Buffalo's 6.09.

Berkman, a 21-year-old who spent most of the year at Double-A Jackson before joining New Orleans in late August, earned most valuable player honors with an electrifying performance.

Berkman, Houston's No. 1 draft pick in 1997, connected for a two-run shot down the right-field line in the third off Buffalo starter Travis Driskill to give New Orleans a 5-1 lead. His solo blast in the sixth off Huck Flener made it 6-3.

Then came the top of the ninth. The Bisons were within 6-5 and looking to hold the Zephyrs scoreless to give the meat of their lineup a chance to pull off a dramatic comeback in the bottom of the inning and force Game Five.

It never happened. Just as he did in Game Four at Durham, reliever Jason Grimsley was wild and was touched for three runs (two earned). By the time Berkman came up, the Zephyrs had built their lead to 9-5.

Berkman then added the resounding exclamation point of the series, transforming a Jeff Sexton pitch into a bolt to dead center field that soared over the 433-foot marker and the 24-foot high wall. Cashman Field regulars said it was one of only five balls hit to that spot in the park's 16-year history.

"I've got pretty good power to center and I thought it had a chance when it left the bat," Berkman said. "But that's a long way and that's a pretty big wall, so I was just running trying to hope to score one."

"He hit the heck out of that thing and that kind of game is something you really don't expect from a young guy," said Buffalo first baseman Jeff Manto, who led all players in the series with eight hits.

Berkman finished the game 4 for 5 with six RBIs and became the first opponent to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game against Buffalo since Omaha's Dwayne Hosey did it on July 27, 1994.

After slipping into the four-run hole in the first three innings, the Bisons had all kinds of opportunities to get even or take the lead before New Orleans blew the game open.

The Herd left the bases loaded in the sixth, when reliever Roberto Rivera struck out pinch-hitter Phil Hiatt. Manto's two-run homer in the seventh cut the New Orleans lead to 6-5, and the Bisons were poised to tie the game in the eighth.

But Zephyrs closer Reggie Harris fanned Torey Lovullo with the bases loaded to end that inning. Harris earned his second save of the series, recording all five of his outs on strikeouts.

"He just made quality pitches at the right time," said Lovullo, a .328 hitter in the regular season who was just 3 for 14 in the series.

Counting the postseason, Datz posted an 88-67 record in his first year as a Triple-A manager and said he was absolutely interested in returning as Herd manager in 1999.

"This has been a blast," Datz said. "Those guys made it that way along with the staff and the people in Buffalo. They've been a first-class, top-shelf group. I've enjoyed myself immensely. It's been a great ride."

"We're all frustrated because we really wanted to say we won the very first Triple-A World Series," Lovullo said. "It would have been nice to say we were the inaugural champion, but we have to look deeper than that. We won the International League and we have a lot to be proud of."

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