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Bisons showed their mettle despite disappointing ending

It would be a mistake to completely write off the Bisons’ playoff chances, but they’re definitely just about in stick-a-fork-in-em territory.

Tuesday’s 9-3 loss to Pawtucket before a sold-out house in Coca-Cola Field was obviously a major downer. Especially with a lot of folks on the premises who didn’t get a chance to see what’s made this month of baseball downtown as interesting as any has been in several years.

The Bisons had an early 3-0 lead after one inning after racking up three runs and four hits on 22-year-old Pawtucket lefty Henry Owens, one of the shining jewels of the Boston chain. They had Toronto stud Daniel Norris on the mound. A tie for the International League wild-card appeared to be in the offing.

Too bad it all fell apart, as Norris struggled with his fastball command more than at any time in his four Triple-A starts. The Red Sox started spraying balls around the park in a sort of prelude to the postgame fireworks, and that was pretty much that.

So it’s a two-deficit with seven to play – all on the road. Good luck with that one.

This isn’t the way the Bisons have played since the calender hit August. They entered the game 16-8 for the month and their starters had a glossy 2.47 earned-run average. They’ve won tight games. They’ve come from behind. They even scored double digits here over the weekend three straight times for the first time in the park’s 27-year history.

It would have been so easy for this team to white-flag things a month ago when it was 48-52 and sat 11 games out of the North Division lead and six out of the wild-card. But that didn’t happen.

There have been an incredible 235 roster moves this season – 44 more than any previous campaign with still six games left. The Bisons have suited up a franchise-record 72 players, just three shy of the International League mark.

Just on those numbers alone, you could easily make a Manager of the Year case for Herd skipper Gary Allenson. Only a veteran boss, and guys who have been also around like pitching coach Randy St. Claire and hitting coach Richie Hebner, could have shepherded a team through all this upheaval.

From this view, it seemed like an uninspired hire last winter when Toronto promoted Allenson from Double-A when the ultra-popular Marty Brown left the organization.

Error on this corner. Allenson, of course, played in the big leagues for the Blue Jays and Red Sox and had all kinds of Triple-A managerial experience with other organizations. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense baseball veteran and he’s been terrific. The Bisons would do very well to have him and his staff back again next year.

“There are clubhouse leaders and it’s a team that’s had a lot of fun in there,” Allenson said. “And it carries over to their work on the field and to the game.”

Allenson joked he’s gotten so many late-night roster calls from the Blue Jays, it’s hard to remember them all. He even slept through a couple. The one he got Monday night from Toronto was a killer, a call for team MVP and IL all-star Kevin Pillar.

Colby Rasmus was ill and Pillar, who was likely getting called up Monday, got taken a few days early. A hard loss to overcome, a tough one to accept after all the excitement of the last three weeks.

“But as much as anything, we got some young pitchers who have come up and fit right in,” Allenson said. “They’re not intimidated by their next level on their journey and they’ve been terrific.”

Norris has certainly not been intimidated. It’s just unfortunate he couldn’t show the big crowd the kind of stuff he displayed during his first two starts in Triple-A. He’s 21. It happens.

“It was one of those days you’re not as sharp as normal,” said Norris, who hardly looked like the pitcher who was 3-0 with 32 strikeouts and just four walks in his first three outings. “You’ve got to grind through those and I tried.”

He nearly survived the fifth in a 3-3 tie before a fastball to Bryce Brentz leaked over the plate and was turned around nealry to Oak Street. It was a three-run bomb, a 6-3 lead for the visitors, an exit for Norris and maybe a fade to black on the season.

Just as the fans were taking notice too. Over the last six days, the Bisons sold 82,617 tickets, an incredible number for a Triple-A team.

Their per-game average of 8,110 for the season was down just 163 fans per date from last year, certainly not bad given our crummy summer weather. And while selling 535,275 tickets for the season is hardly the million days of 20 years ago, it’s still in the top 10 in the minor leagues.

It’s been a fun final month. Looks like the Bisons, however, have the same playoff flu as some other Buffalo teams you might know.

Barring a big turnaround on this road trip, the season will end Monday in Syracuse. And it will be nine years and counting with no postseason.