It was a perfect evening for baseball, at least until the rain started.
The rain never stopped, but neither did baseball, as the Bluefield Blue Jays salvaged the final game of the Mercer Cup series with a 3-0 win over the Princeton Rays in front of 526 spectators on Thursday night at Hunnicutt Field.
Rain fell for much of the final six innings, but Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg said playing in those conditions was part of the profession.
“When they get to the big leagues, they will go places where it is just pouring down rain and they will have rain delays for 2 1/2 or 3 hours because everything hinges around the schedule,” Holmberg said. “They don’t think about that, but it will happen one day.”
Princeton (27-22) had wrapped up the Mercer Cup series with a 13-inning win over Bluefield on Wednesday. Michael Johns was hoping the excitement of that accomplishment didn’t play a role in this game.
“You hope it’s not,” Johns said. “Maybe that is what it was, but Bluefield is a good team, they are a real good team. They are a lot better than their record and they can beat you on any night and they just out-played us tonight.”
Bluefield (20-25), which snapped a four-game losing skid, got an excellent pitching performance from Tucker Jensen, and got the only runs in the game on an RBI double by Christian Lopes in the sixth, followed by a two-run home run from Seth Conner.
Jensen, the grandson of 1958 American League Most Valuable Player Jackie Jensen, allowed just three hits and struck out one in six innings to improve to 3-1. His last outing against the Rays on July 21 was a one-hit performance over six innings for another win.
“He struggled here last year right out of college and I think he has learned to pitch a whole lot better and trust his stuff much better,” Holmberg said. “He has pitched very well against Princeton in his last couple of starts.
“He repeats his delivery, throws strikes and changes speeds, which is everything we ask the guys to do so we are real happy with his outing today.”
Alex Keudell, who fell to 2-3, was equally as stingy for five innings, allowing three hits and no runs. Bluefield finally got to the University of Oregon product in the sixth, but he did strike out nine and walk just one before being replaced by R.J. Davis.
He got in trouble in the sixth by walking Jorge Vega-Rosado. After a sacrifice bunt by Dickie Thon, Lopes connected with a double off the left field fence, and Conner followed with a home run over that same fence.
“I thought both pitchers were really good,” Johns said. “I thought Keudell was really good, he made a mistake on the leadoff walk and left the ball up on the home run, other than that he was really good.
“Their guy was good too. He located his fastball, a really good job of pitching, we hit some balls hard, but it just didn’t fall for us tonight.”
Jensen mowed through the Princeton batting order for five innings of hitless baseball before allowing a single by Brandon Martin the sixth. He surrendered singles leading off the seventh to Omar Narvaez and Dan Duran, and was promptly replaced by Colby Broussard.
Being a reliever was a wet proposition as the rain continued to fall. The game was delayed a few minutes in the top of the ninth when Davis requested that the grounds crew work on drying the area around the mound.
“It wasn’t easy as the night went along with the weather and ground conditions,” Holmberg said, “but you have got to give those guys credit.”
Broussard worked 1 1/3 innings, loading the bases in the eighth on two singles — thanks to a generous scorekeeper — by James Harris, Jr. and Martin, followed by a hit-batsman, but he was able to pitch out of trouble.
Brandon Dorsett pitched the ninth for his second save of the season.
Bluefield, which received two hits each from Vega-Rosado and Lopes, had been swept by Bristol in a doubleheader on Monday and then lost a pair of one-run games the previous two nights against Princeton.
“The last two ball games were well played, it was just maybe a hit here or a hit there, but the doubleheader against Bristol, we just didn’t show up that day,” Holmberg said. “The pitching in both starts was good, but we just didn’t hit. Hopefully we are back on track and we want to compete every night. We want to compete.”
While the Mercer Cup title was nice, securing a Appalachian League postseason berth — something Princeton hasn’t done since 1998 — is what the Rays want the most.
“It would be nice to get in the playoffs, we have been winning every series in the last four or five (series), that is what you want,” said Johns, whose Rays were paced at the plate by Martin with two hits. “It is hard to sweep a team any team, to take two or three from them is good.
“I think we have taken two of three in the last four or five series so we are going to focus our attention now to Greeneville and hopefully try to get in the playoffs.”
Princeton saw a three-game win streak come to an end, but the Rays have won 10 of its their last 14 to get into contention for the second playoff spot in the East with Danville.
“We have been playing well, good pitching, the defense has played really well and our bats are starting to come around,” Johns said. “I feel good about where we are.”
Princeton will host Greeneville tonight at 7:05 p.m., with the first 500 fans getting a Matt Moore bobblehead doll. Moore, who pitched in Princeton in 2007-08, his now with the Tampa Bays Rays.
Bluefield will host Burlington tonight for two games beginning at 5 p.m. The first game is the completion of a suspended game from July 9. The first 1,500 fans will receive a Blue Jays NASCAR die cast car.
Note: Bluefield outfielder Dwight Smith, Jr. was promoted to Vancouver on Thursday. He has been replaced on the roster by Emilio Guerrero, who moved up from the Gulf Coast League. Guerrero had a tough debut at third base, committing two of the Blue Jays’ three errors in the game.
Holmberg needs one more win to reach 1,300 for his career.
—Contact Brian Woodson
at Hunnicutt Field
Bluefield.......................000 003 000 — 3 7 3
Princeton.....................000 000 000 — 0 6 2
Tucker Jensen, Colby Broussard (7), Brandon Dorsett (9) and Santiago Nessy. Alex Keudell, R.J. Davis (7) and Omar Narvaez. W—Jensen (3-1); L—Kendell (2-3); S—Dorsett (2). HR—Seth Conner (2) 6th, 1 on. Time—2:23; Att—526.