BOWIE – Luis Gonzalez just needed one good pitch to get out of the eighth inning against the Altoona Curve on Aug. 25. The left-handed pitcher for the Bowie Baysox entered the inning in relief of Tyler Herb, who was in the middle of his best start of the season before allowing back-to-back singles to start the inning.
After striking out batters Brett Pope and Bralin Jackson, the trouble started. Jared Oliva singled to center, scoring a run. The next batter, Oneil Cruz, worked a walk. With the bases loaded, infielder Logan Hill ripped a two-run single into left field, trimming a comfortable 4-0 lead to a tense 4-3.
That brought Bligh Madris to the plate. On an 0-1 pitch, Madris hit a fly ball into right field. It looked like an easy play for outfielder T.J. Nichting, but the ball started to flutter, drifting closer to the infield. He was forced to dive, sliding and making the catch. It was a crucial out, preserving a one-run lead and setting the tone for a quick ninth for a 4-3 Bowie win over Altoona.
“I got the sunglasses on and I saw the ball, but…I can’t really read if it’s being hit well or not or if it’s going to keep carrying or keep dying and that’s what happened there,” Nichting said. “It died on me more than I can read, and luckily I was able to get it.”
It was a crucial series win for the Baysox (73-59, 43-21 second half), allowing them to move back into a tie with the Erie SeaWolves for first place in the second half of the Eastern League’s Western Division.
Both teams have eight games remaining, and the winner of the second half will enter the playoffs and face off with the Harrisburg Senators, who had the best record in the Western Division in the first half, in a best-of-five series starting Sept. 4. As of Aug. 25, the Baysox own the tiebreaker since they have a better intra-division record than the SeaWolves.
“These guys have continued to battle all year and I’m happy for them,” Bowie Manager Buck Britton said. “They deserve to play meaningful games after the work they put in and the way they continued to grind after not giving in and feeling sorry for themselves.”
The Baysox have had outstanding starting pitching all year, and that trend continued Sunday with Herb. His strong start almost did not happen though, as he ran into trouble in the first inning. After allowing a single and a walk to the first two batters, he retired the next two before Hill singled into left. Left fielder Cedric Mullins fielded the ball cleanly, and fired a strike to catcher Brett Cumberland, beating the runner and ending the inning.
Herb would not allow another base runner until the sixth inning and would not allow another hit until a one-out single by Hill in the seventh inning.
“I think the last outing I had I went to two strikes a lot and I was trying to do too much,” Herb said. “I think today it was more about getting ahead of guys and working fast for the defense and trying to work as quick as possible.”
After the jam, the Baysox got on the board in the bottom of the inning. Center fielder Ryan McKenna doubled with one out then moved to third on an Anderson Feliz flyout. With shortstop Jesmuel Valentin at the plate, an errant Beau Sulser pitch got by Altoona catcher Arden Pabst, allowing McKenna to score.
Bowie went back to work in the bottom of the second inning, scoring another run to double the lead. Following back-to-back singles by Mason McCoy and Cumberland, Nichting doubled into the gap in right field, driving in the team’s second run of the game.
The Baysox manufactured two more runs in the fourth, taking advantage of their two fastest players reaching base. With right-handed pitcher Jesus Liranzo and his 0.38 ERA replacing Susler, Mullins was walked with one out and then stole second. McKenna then connected with a double into the left-field gap, allowing Mullins to score easily.
Bowie then took a risk with Feliz at the plate, sending McKenna on a 1-1 pitch. The Dominican Republic native hit a hard line drive down the first baseline. A catch by Curve first baseman Hill would have resulted in a double play and the end of the inning. But he was a step late, and the ball whizzed into shallow right field, allowing McKenna to score Bowie’s fifth run.
“We did a nice job,” Britton said of his team’s approach at the plate. “(Susler) had pretty good numbers coming into this start so we made him throw some pitches and we got some stuff elevated in the zone and we were able to put some good swings on it and get big hits with guys in scoring position.”
The Baysox will finish the 2019 regular season on the road with four-game series against both the Reading Fightin’ Phils and the Richmond Flying Squirrels. A strong finish could mean their eighth playoff appearance in team history, with the last coming in 2017.