Thirty-four games down, 34 games to go.
Dawel Lugo led Bluefield’s 12-hit attack with four singles, and Tazewell’s Zak Wasilewski picked up the win in relief, as the Blue Jays finished the first half of the Appalachian League season with a 6-3 win over Princeton in the opening game of the Mercer Cup series in front of 1,042 spectators on Friday night at Bowen Field.
Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg is pleased with the first half for good reason. His Blue Jays are in first place with a 22-12 record and a two-game lead over Pulaski.
“Absolutely, there is an old saying, it is not how you start, it is how you finish,” Holmberg said. “Your last two at-bats are just as important as your first two at-bats, your last 10 games are going to be just as important as your first 10 games.
“As they continue to grow together and the players get better and they make plays and they pitch good and they hit better and then the team gets better. So far so good...”
It hasn’t been as pleasant for Princeton, who are 7-27 with 34 games left to play.
“We will try to win tomorrow,” Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer said. “I don’t look past tomorrow and we will see if we can play better offensively and defensively and after tomorrow’s game is over we will look forward to Sunday and Monday’s games.”
Bluefield, which is 11-9-1 in the Mercer Cup series that began in 1992, took a 1-0 series lead on the Rays, scoring five runs in the opening four innings off Jacob Faria (0-2) to cruise past Princeton.
“It is the importance of it, they have to know it is not just another game,” Holmberg, said. “I wanted them to go out and play with the sense of urgency that they did tonight and especially early in the ball game. We had some real good at-bats and scored early.”
Meanwhile, Princeton lost for the four straight time, leaving nine runners on base, including scoring just one run in the third despite having the bases loaded and one out against Bluefield starter Tim Mayza.
“We had our chances early in the game and so did they,” Sheaffer said. “The team that got the big hit with runners in scoring position was the team that won. We will see what happens tomorrow, it should be a pretty good game.”
Bluefield took advantage of an extra out in the opening inning when Mitch Nay struck out with two outs, but reached first when Faria’s pitch eluded catcher Armando Araiza. Lugo followed with an RBI single to score Tim Locastro, who had reached on an one-out single.
Two more runs crossed in the second when Matt Dean — batting eighth in the lineup — led off with a long home run over the left-center field fence. Nico Taylor followed with a double, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly from D.J. Davis.
“Nico swung the bat real well, Mitch just had a heck of a ball game and played with some intensity and some aggressiveness, and Lugo played very well at short for the most part,” Holmberg said.
Princeton narrowed the margin to 3-1 in the third when Coty Blanchard singled, moved to third on a single by Emmanuel Paulino and a walk, but the Rays managed just one run on a ground ball out by David Garcia, who injured his hand later in the game and is considered day-to-day.
“Just one game behind,” Sheaffer said. “They are going to take on the seriousness of this series as it goes on and sure, it is important. There is a lot of pride to play for and I could tell there is a little different feel in the air and so right now it is 1-0 and we will see what happens tomorrow.”
Mayza worked four innings for Bluefield, allowing three hits, striking out two and walking two. Wasilewski improved to 3-1, going 3 2/3 innings, walking four, fanning three and allowing one hit, a two-run double to Yoel Araujo in the eighth.
Brett Barber retired four of the final five batters to record his third save.
“Mayza scuffled a little bit, Wasze not too bad, in and out of some good and bad innings, but we are proud of the effort tonight and the intensity they played with,” Holmberg said. “We had a few hiccups in the middle of the infield, dropped some balls, but all in all, Barber comes in and shuts the door. It was a nice win.”
Bluefield also scored a run in the fourth on a Dean single and double by Taylor, and took a 6-1 lead in the seventh when Locastro singled and scored on another single by Lugo.
Lugo was 4 for 4, while Taylor, Dean, Locastro and Nay had two hits apiece for the Blue Jays. Lugo also drove in two runs.
Princeton, which had just four hits, scored two in the eighth on the double by Araujo, but Bluefield was able to get the early advantage in the Mercer Cup series.
“Real good and it is not like any other game we play throughout the league,” Holmberg said. “It is a higher level of importance because of the two cities.”
Barber, who took the loss in Bluefield’s last home game when Bristol rallied for five runs on three two-out errors in the top of the ninth in a 7-6 decision, was ready to get back on the mound.
“It feels good to get that one behind us and not think about it anymore,” said Barber, a 37th round draft choice in June out of Ohio University. “That was a whole group collection, we just couldn’t pull it together, we just couldn’t get anything to work for us.”
The son of Mike Barber, who was a standout tight end for Marshall, Barber, who starred at Hurricane High School, has found a different sport to call his own.
“He found out the hard way that football is not the sport for little guys, baseball is a lot easier on your body,” said Barber, who is excited to be playing again in West Virginia. “This is about as close to home as any place I could ever play, it is a pretty good spot to me.”
So is serving as a closer for the Blue Jays, and is especially thrilled to have played a role in Bluefield taking a the early series lead against the struggling Rays.
“I want to pitch every night, it is just a perfect situation for me, starting the Mercer Cup off right,” Barber said. “It is pressure, but that is what you play the game for is those situations, get your heart beating, get in there and throw the ball..
“Just like tonight they could have come back and got us, but I was able to shut the door on them.”
The second half of the season will begin tonight with the Blue Jays hosting Princeton at 7:05 p.m. Barber is excited for the possibilities ahead.
“Everyone is in a good place right now,” Barber said. “I can’t think of anyone that is struggling, it is a tribute to our coaches and we are making things happen.”
Bird seed: A pair of Canadian pitchers, Tom Robson and Shane Dawson, have been promoted from Bluefield to Vancouver in the Northwest League...Kenny Holmberg, the son of Dennis Holmberg, recently recorded the 100th win of his managerial career in the Arizona Summer League with the Rangers. His father has 1,332 wins in 26 seasons in minor league dugouts.
—Contact Brian Woodson
at Bowen Field
Princeton........001 000 020 — 3 4 0
Bluefield............121 100 10x — 6 12 2
Jacob Faria, Josh Kimborowicz (4), Oscar Armenta (8) and Armando Araiza. Tim Mayza, Zak Wasilewski (5), Brett Barber (8) and Jorge Saez. W—Wasilewski (3-1); L—Faria (0-2); S—Barber (3). HR—Matt Dean (2) 2nd, 0 on. Att—1,042.