By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The next time the Bluefield Blue Jays return to Bowen Field, it will be for playoff baseball.
The opponent will be Pulaski, but will the best-of-3 series begin at Calfee Park or equally historic Bowen Field? The East Division winner will be on the road for the first game, and host the next two starting on Saturday.
“We know who, but it is a question of if we go there first or do they come here first,” Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said.
Tazewell native Zak Wasilewski combined with Francisco Gracesqui and Brett Barber to scatter four hits and Mitch Nay had three hits and drove in two runs, leading Bluefield to a 6-1 Appalachian League win over the Kingsport Mets in front of 1,574 spectators on a chilly Saturday night in the regular season home finale that ended with a fireworks display.
“This is awesome, it is a really nice night tonight,” said Nay, who is used to the warmth of his native Arizona. “It is like 70 or whatever it was, but it was a good night for baseball for sure.”
Bluefield (40-21) was able to rebound from a pair of 7-0 losses to the Mets to finish with a stellar 23-13 record at home.
“Especially after two games like that against a team we are probably going to face in the playoffs,” said Nay, of the importance of the win. “It was just good to get that confidence against these guys and just get the bats together. We scored some runs so I really feel good about tonight.”
Bluefield maintains a 1 1/2 game lead in the East Division over Pulaski, who will play Kingsport over the next three days. The Mets are currently in first place in the West Division, but by just a half-game over Greeneville and 2 1/2 over Elizabethton with six games to go.
After playing three with the Mariners, the Mets will host the Blue Jays.
“We have got to look at it game by game, we have been going like that since the season started,” Kingsport manager Jose Leger said. “We can’t control what happens with the other teams, we just control what is ahead of us. No doubt it is a tight race and we go back now and look at the scoreboard, but we don’t let that bother us during the game, we just focus on game by game and pitch by pitch.”
Wasilewski, whose ERA dropped to 2.77, started for Bluefield, allowing just two hits and a run, while striking out five and walking three, but the southpaw needed 30 pitches in the first inning, and didn’t get a decision after being removed after using 77 pitches to get through the fourth.
“He does that, he very rarely goes out there and gets a first pitch out,” Holmberg said. “He is like 6 to 7 pitches per hitter it seems like, but he is able to compose himself and get back in and put the ball in play...
“He worked out of that, settled down pretty good and he fell one inning short of getting a decision, but he pitched good.”
Francisco Gracesqui allowed a hit in three innings to pick up the win, while Brett Barber pitched the final two as the bullpen continues to be depleted, having lost reliever Alvido Jimenez to Vancouver of the Northwest League.
“We played with a little bit more energy tonight, we were a little flat the last two games, obviously the bats didn’t show up,” Holmberg said. “The pitching was good tonight. Wasilewski threw four innings and Gracesqui was huge tonight and we used Barber maybe one more inning than we usually did...
“The bullpen may be getting a little tight there and guys are going to have to pick up extra innings. I was very happy, very pleased with the finish to the game tonight.”
Wasilewski left with a lead, as Nay and fellow All-Star Matt Dean both singled in the second, and moved up a base on a balk by losing pitcher Persio Reyes. He walked Nico Taylor on four pitches, with the last ball eluding catcher Adrian Abreu, allowing Nay to score and Taylor to hustle all the way to second base.
Angel Rojas then drove home Dean with a sacrifice fly, and Jesus Gonzalez doubled to the left field corner to put Bluefield up 3-0.
“Their pitcher threw the ball well, we had a little trouble hitting lefty’s, tonight and they just took advantage of a pitcher’s mistake, they had two big innings and that was it,” Leger said. “They scored three in the second and three more in the fifth inning and that is all they needed with their pitching tonight.”
Kingsport scored its lone run in the fourth when Pedro Perez doubled to left, moved to third on a ground ball and scored on a throwing error by shortstop Franklin Barreto.
Bluefield added three runs with two outs in the fifth, with Nay driving in a run with a single, and Taylor drove in two more with a double, which in reality was a short fly ball that the Kingsport shortstop and leftfielder let drop between them.
Nay led all batters with three hits, raising his batting average to .313. Nay joined Dean and lefthanded pitcher Jairo Labourt on the Appalachian League All-Star team that was announced on Friday.
“It is awesome, I had no idea actually until the game started and I got in and I found out, but it is really awesome,” Nay said. “I just tried to come out here and have a good year, it is just awesome to be named to it.”
Gonzalez added two hits for Bluefield, while Taylor drew a pair of walks.
Even though Bluefield is guaranteed a playoff spot, winning the East Division won’t be easy, not with three-game series on tap with Greeneville and Kingsport battling for their playoff lives in the West.
“This team is fighting and scratching, they showed that the last two nights” Holmberg said. “Greeneville is trying to get back into first place, we are trying to hold on to first place...”
Nay figures it will be a good opportunity to pick up some scouting reports on both teams, either of whom could play Bluefield for the Appalachian League championship if the Blue Jays get past Pulaski in the opening round that begins on Saturday.
“These are two of the teams we could face in the playoffs,” Nay said. “I think it is going to help us get some good information on these guys for the future. We just have to stay focused through the playoffs and stay hot.”
A first round draft choice last June by Toronto, Nay would love to leave Bluefield in a couple of weeks with a championship, something the local team hasn’t won since 2001.
“That would be awesome,” Nay said. “I would love to get a ring, we have had a great season. This is a really good team and I really want to finish it off on a strong note and win a championship.”
Bird seed: D.J. Davis set out a second straight game, having spent the last two days working with roving batting instructor Mike Barnett. Barnett was Michael Jordan’s batting coach during his brief stint with the Birmingham Barons...Second baseman Tim Locastro is out with a hip flexor, but Holmberg hopes he can return later this week.
at Bowen Field
Kingsport..................000 100 000 — 1 4 0
Bluefield.....................030 030 00x — 6 7 1
Persio Reyes, Luis Rengel (5), Zachary Dotson (7), Ricardo Jacquez (8) and Adrian Abreu. Zak Wasilewski, Francisco Gracesqui (5), Brett Barber (8) and Jorge Saez. W—Gracesqui (4-0); L—Reyes (4-5). HR—none. Att—1,574.