By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Twice, the Princeton Rays had bases loaded and two outs. Twice, the Rays left the runners on base.
Jeffrey Zimmerman collected three singles and drove in three runs, and three Pulaski pitchers scattered seven hits, as the Mariners defeated the Rays for the second night in a row, 7-2, in front of 520 spectators on a cool July Wednesday night at Hunnicutt Field.
Pulaski (18-13), which remains in second place in the East Division, will host Princeton tonight at Calfee Park, as the Rays try to find a formula for success on the road. The Rays are 1-14 away from home this season.
Princeton (7-25) manager Danny Sheaffer is looking for a solid outing from starting pitcher D.J. Slaton, while adding that the Rays need to score first against Pulaski’s Jose Flores.
“We have got to score first for sure, we need five or six strong innings out of our starter,” Sheaffer said. “I don’t think it really matters home and away. I just think the bottom line comes down to execution offensively, making all the plays defensively and at the end of the game it should be a pretty close game.”
Pitching for Pulaski was Edwin Diaz, who entered the game with an Appalachian League-best ERA of 0.84, but the third round selection in 2012 was a little off, striking out seven, walking four and hitting Princeton batter Coty Blanchard in the head with a fastball.
“He was missing arm-side fastballs, unfortunately he hit a guy in the head,” Pulaski manager Chris Prieto said. “He wasn’t as sharp as he has been, but he is a competitor and you have got to learn how to get out of jams.”
Princeton had opportunity to get the early lead on Diaz in the second, loading the bases on a force play and two walks, but Bralin Jackson flied to right field to leave the runners stranded.
“We caught him on an off night,” Sheaffer said. “I know he is a lot better than that for sure, but one big base hit in the second or one big base hit in the fourth with bases loaded changes that game.”
It helped that Diaz that Pulaski built a 6-0 lead, scoring twice in the third off Princeton’s Nolan Gannon. Ian Miller, who had two hits and scored three runs, singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and scored on one of three singles by Zimmerman, a 19th round draft choice in June. Zimmerman made it 2-0, scoring on a sacrifice fly by Kristian Brito.
“Early on in his short career so far (Zimmerman) has proven to be kind of a mature, control the strike zone type of hitter,” said Prieto, of Zimmerman. “He has been fun to watch and he is a really great kid.”
Pulaski plated four more runs in the fourth, with Isaiah Yates and Tony DeMello reaching with singles and scoring on a two-run double by Zach Shank. Miller followed with a walk and both runners moved up on a sacrifice fly by Smith.
Sheaffer promptly replaced Gannon with Edgar Gomez, who was outstanding for most of his 5 1/3 innings on the mound, but did allow Zimmerman to drive in two runs with a single to center field. Gomez allowed four hits and no runs through the eight inning.
“Gomez saved our bullpen, best outing by far for him,” Sheaffer said. “Although he gave up that two-out base hit in the fourth inning with men on second and third, for the rest of the time he was lights out. We were happy to see that, we have lost him for a few days and we will get him back and he will have a chance to pitch again.”
Princeton had another chance to creep much closer in the fourth against Diaz, scoring a run when Yoel Araujo reached on a one-out error and Blanchard was nailed in the side of the helmet by a pitch, and was replaced by Douglas Duran.
Johnny Eierman, a third round selection in 2011, entered the game batting .147, but had two hits in this game, including a RBI single to score Araujo.
“Johnny has been struggling and tonight he hit the ball very well twice and that was good to see,” Sheaffer said. “We hope that carries on into the next couple of games.”
Jackson followed by drawing a walk to load the bases again, but Emmanuel Paulino — making his debut in Princeton — struck out for a third straight time to end the inning.
“We as a team can’t afford to make a mistake and we have to execute and with those two things not happening the outcome of the game is not very good,” Sheaffer said. “As I have said before, it is going to make them better knowing they have to do everything right in order to compete.”
Gomez shut down the Mariners until Pulaski added a run in the ninth against Stepan Havlicek when Miller doubled, moved to third on a sacrifice fly by Smith and scored on another long fly ball by Zimmerman.
Pulaski finished with 11 hits, including seven from the top three batters in the lineup, with three from Zimmerman and two each by Miller and Smith.
“This is a tough ball park to hit in, the grass is real thick, so it was nice to see us swing the bats here,” Prieto said.
Diaz was replaced in the fifth by Luis Pina, who combined with Daniel Thieben to scatter just four hits and one run over the final five innings. Princeton’s second run scored in the seventh on a double by Eierman and a single by Paulino.
Eierman and Armando Araiza led the Rays with two hits apiece.
Pulaski remains in second place behind Bluefield in a competitive East Division that includes four teams within five games of first place.
“At this point you really can’t start paying attention to it,” Prieto said. “You just have to come out and keep competing every day and our energy and spirits are good each day regardless of the win or loss from the day before.
“It’s a good vibe in the clubhouse and our guys are really pulling for each other so they are having fun.”
Princeton will try to get back on the winning track tonight in Pulaski, with a three-game series on tap beginning Friday in the Mercer Cup series at Bluefield.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” Sheaffer said. ‘The record is 0-0 and we will try to go get them.”
— Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com
At Hunnicutt Field
Pulaski………….….002 400 001 — 7 11 2
Princeton…………..000 100 100 — 2 7 2
Edwin Diaz, Luis Pina (5), Daniel Thieben (8) and Toby DeMello. Nolan Gannon, Edgar Gomez (3), Stepan Havlicek (9) and Armando Araiza. W— Pina (1-0); L—Gannon (0-3). HR —none. Att—520.