Sunday’s Mercer Cup contest was as different as night and day from the previous one, except that the same team won again.
The Bluefield Blue Jays struck early, stayed in the lead throughout and left the diamond with their third straight win over the Rays, 5-1 at Hunnicutt Field in an afternoon matinee.
The two rivals had battled for 12 innings on Saturday night, a 4-3 Bluefield win that included three home runs.
The Blue Jays (13-11) now hold a 3-0 lead in the local series, and climbed within half a game of Appalachian League East division leader Danville (13-10), which lost 10-6 Sunday. Princeton (12-11) is just one game back in the division.
Bluefield collected 13 hits Sunday, all but one of them singles. That exception was a double by Richard Urena to lead off the ballgame. He scored the first run on a groundout by Josh Almonte that resulted in a double play.
Again in the top of the second, the Blue Jays led off with a hit and brought the batter around to score. Andres Sotillo knocked a ball through the hole between third base and shortstop, stole second, and reached the plate on Austin Davis’ RBI single past first base.
Bluefield made it 3-0 in the fourth. Rowdy Tellez got a hit through the right side of the infield. Gabe Cenas’ base on balls and James Lynch’s single loaded the bases, and Angel Rojas picked up an RBI when he batted a ball off the leg of pitcher Freddy Alvarez that ended up as an out at first base while Tellez crossed home plate.
Tellez, who was 3 for 4 at bat, said, “When everybody’s going good, it’s not 1 through 9 (in the batting order). Everybody’s a leadoff hitter. Everybody helps each other.”
Princeton’s lone run came in the bottom of the fourth.
Nick Wilson chalked up an infield hit with two outs. The next batter, Patrick Grady, was hit by a pitch on his batting helmet. He sustained a cut over his left eye and left the game.
Carter Burgess followed up with a smash off the third-base bag to load the bases, and Manny Sanchez drove Wilson in with a single to right field.
Three straight Bluefield singles in the eighth got Almonte home to pad the lead. Dan Jansen scored the final run on a ninth-inning single to shallow left by Aaron Attaway — his first run batted in as a professional.
“A run here, a run there,” said Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg, who was rather displeased with his team stranding eight men on base. “We had some opportunities to break the game open, and we didn’t. But I’m proud of the guys.”
Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer said, “They (Bluefield) were relentless. They capitalized on their opportunities.”
Tellez said, “We put runs on the board, we win. The pitchers are more confident when they get on the mound. ... Once we get ahead, we’re pretty good at keeping it that way with our pitching. And we’re playing pretty solid defense.”
Bluefield starter Francisco Rios went five innings and picked up the win. He gave up five hits and the earned run. Oscar Cabrera struck out four Rays in three relief innings, and Jordan Romano kept the lid on in the ninth, celebrating when a double play ended it.
“I can’t say enough about our pitching,” Holmberg said. “We start with pitching, we end with pitching.”
Bluefield left fielder James Lynch made nice running grabs of sinking fly balls for the first Princeton outs of the first and eighth inning, and right fielder Trent Miller caught up with some hard-hit balls for outs.
Holmberg said, “We talked about that. It really comes down to challenging the ball.”
Freddy Alvarez pitched the first four innings for Princeton and took the loss, allowing seven hits and three earned runs.
Sheaffer said, “All things considered, he battled. He kept us in the ballgame.”
Princeton had six hits, one each from six Rays. The only extra-base hit was a double by No. 9 batter Taylor Hawkins.
Rays first-round draft pick Nick Ciuffo, who Sheaffer said “got beat up a little bit” at the catcher’s position on Saturday night, did not play on Sunday. “He’ll be back in there tomorrow,” the manager said.
The afternoon game was the earliest start scheduled for Bluefield all season. Holmberg relished it.
“I always liked day games,” he said. “They’re dirtier, sweatier, and you have the wristbands, the eye-black, the sunglasses. ... And the guys responded well.”
The two neighboring teams wrap up the current installment of their head-to-head competition with a 7:05 p.m. game tonight at Hunnicutt Field.
The Mercer Cup is “huge” in the minds of Bluefield players, Tellez said. “It’s almost bigger than the playoffs. We want to keep it in Bluefield rather than in Princeton.”
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @BDTBone
At Hunnicutt Field
Bluefield.......101 100 011 — 5 13 0
Princeton......000 100 000 — 1 6 3
Francisco Rios, Oscar Cabrera (6), Jordan Romano (9) and Andres Sotillo, Dan Jansen (8). Freddy Alvarez, Damion Carroll (5), Steve Ascher (7), Tomas Michelson (9) and Taylor Hawkins. WP - Rios (2-1). LP - Alvarez (2-2). HR - none. Att - 438.