Brandon Martin drove home Ariel Soriano with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday night, and the Princeton Rays drew within one game of reclaiming the Mercer Cup by nipping the visiting Bluefield Blue Jays 4-3.
The errorless game resembled a roller-coaster ride for the 856 fans at Hunnicutt Field..
Princeton (26-21) wasted no time getting on the board. Martin and Reid Redman led off the bottom of the first with doubles off Bluefield starter Jeremy Gabryszwski. Martin traded places with Redman on the diamond for a 1-0 lead.
Willie Argo was saddled with an 0-2 count to begin the bottom of the fourth, then fouled off three straight before adjusting his swing just enough for a single to shallow right. Two outs later, on the first pitch to John Alexander, one loud crack of the bat sent a liner to the right-field corner, and beyond, for a 3-0 advantage.
Princeton left-hander Bruedlin Suero and the Rays defense were perfect through the first three innings. In the third, Argo's rolling catch of a long fly by Matt Dean was followed by Redman's hustling effort to reach a grounder off Jordan Leyland's bat that had already passed second base. Redman lunged to fight off his momentum and threw to first just in time to record the third out.
Bluefield (19-24) got its first hit on Jorge Vega-Rosado's grounder up the middle. The Blue Jays put two runners into scoring position later in the frame, prompting a visit to the Suero on the mound by Rays pitching coach Darwin Peguero.
Suero responded by striking out dangerous Eric Arce on four pitches to end the threat. Suero left the game after the sixth inning with a 3-0 lead.
“We needed him to go six innings tonight,” said Princeton manager Michael Johns. “And behind him, our defense was really good.”
But Suero was denied the win when Bluefield scored three runs in the seventh off relief pitcher Daniel Bream.
Arce led off with a single just past first base. After a strikeout and Jacob Anderson's base on balls, Dean brought Arce across the plate with another single past first. Vega-Rosado then picked up his third hit of the night, a two-out triple to left-center that tied the contest 3-3.
Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said, “They got some good starting pitching [but] we battled back and made a competitive game of it.”
Neither side scored again until the dramatic final stanza.
Princeton reliever Zach Butler allowed a double and a walk in the top of the eighth but ended the Jays' rally by snagging a liner from Niko Taylor and throwing to first for the third out on the Rays' second double play of the evening.
Three flyouts, capped by Argo's running catch of Vega-Rosado's shot to right, ended the top of the ninth.
With one out in the last half-inning, Soriano drew a walk off reliever Brandon Dorsett. Soriano had the “green light” to steal a base in the situation that followed, and took the bag to get in scoring position.
Martin came to the plate with two outs and laced a ball through the infield, then watched tensely along with hundreds of Rays fans as Soriano sped around third and slid across home to end the drama. A split second later, a tidal wave of players from the Rays dugout surged to first to congratulate Martin.
Martin said, “We had Soriano at second, and he's a fast runner. We knew we had a chance. It's fun, seeing him score and having all my teammates jump on me.”
Johns said, “We've been really good, all year, at stolen bases. If you ever needed a time to have one, it was there. That sets up Brandon Martin and he really did a nice job. For an 18-year-old kid to go up there – and he struggled a little bit at the plate – but to stay in the middle, with the tough situation – I was really proud of the guys.”
“Once you get two outs and the right pitch, you've got to score, in the bottom of the ninth.”
After Martin scored in the first, he was 0 for 3 in the middle of the game, and was yearning for one more chance.
“You never want to leave an at bat behind,” he said. “You always want that fifth at bat.”
Butler allowed two hits and one walk in 2 1/3 innings and picked up his first Appy League victory. Redman was 2 for 4 at the plate.
“I've got to go back to our defense,” Johns said. “We didn't give them anything in. If you catch the ball, you're going to give yourself a chance. … It was a good team win.”
The Blue Jays got a 3 for 5 night from Vega-Rosado, and Nessy was 2 for 4. Relief pitcher Julio Carmona allowed just one walk and one single in two innings of work.
Holmberg said, “It was a good ballgame – a tough game to lose.”
He said “both sides are fully aware of the Mercer Cup. One way or another, you've got to win two out of three [in this series]. Now, we've got to win two out of two and they've got to win one.”
Johns said about the Blue Jays, “I've got to give their guys credit. I think they're a really good team, I don't care what their record is. You've got to play hard against them. ”
About the Mercer Cup, he said, “Of course, you think about. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it. But I keep saying we want to win the Mercer Cup. I think it's more important this year than it ever has been.
“The first year I won it, and I figured you're going to win it every year. Then last year, losing it, it's not fun. I know I've said that before. … It is important. You want to win it. But more important is the Appalachian League standings. We're right in it, right in the mix with a couple of other teams, so every game counts.”
Martin said, “If we win [the Cup], it'd be a great thing for this team and this town. They come out and support us so much.”
Princeton players will visit the Center in the Square celebration on Mercer Street today at noon to meet fans.
The Blue Jays and Rays face off for the next-to-last time this year today at 7 p.m at Hunnicutt Field, which will be “Ed Randall's Bat for the Cure Night.”
at Hunnicutt Field
Bluefield......................000 000 300 — 3 11 0
Princeton.....................100 200 001 — 4 9 0
Jeremy Gabryszwski, Julio Carmona (6), Brandon Dorsett (8) and Santiago Nessy. Bruedlin Suero, Daniel Bream (7), Zach Butler (7), and Oscar Hernandez. WP – Butler (1-0). LP – Dorsett (2-1). HR – Princeton, Alexander (4), 4th, 1 on. Time -2:27. Att -856.