As the game progressed, it took on a big-time atmosphere, a well-played pitchers' duel that intensified in front of a sellout crowd of 5,267 fans. After weeks of watching opponents pull away at the end of games, the ValleyCats finally got their clutch hits. Tri-City (19-28) scored all its runs in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 3-1 victory over Vermont (24-23), moving to within five games of the division lead.
"That's the whole point," manager Stubby Clapp said of beating the first-place team. "That's who you're trying to conquer. Getting to take one right now, right away, will hopefully give us some momentum going forward."
Rafael Valenzuela, who joined the team three days earlier and was playing his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium, stepped to the plate with two on and one out in the eighth inning. At least two ValleyCats had reached base in four of the first seven innings, but none came around to score.
Valenzuela, hitting 6 for 15 since joining the team, made sure that would not happen again. The lefty sliced a line drive into the opposite-field gap for a double, scoring Justin Gominsky from second base to tie the game.
"The whole at-bat, I was just hitting fastball, and I was hoping he would make a mistake," Valenzuela said. "He was making some good pitches against me, but he finally made a mistake, and I made him pay."
With the bases loaded and two outs, catcher Ryan McCurdy - far from an everyday player, appearing in only his 18th game of the season - came through with one of the team's biggest hits this year. McCurdy took one strike and then turned on a fastball from closer Tanner Peters, driving it past a diving third baseman and driving in two runs with the eventual game-winning single.
"I was very excited," McCurdy said of the hit, his second of the game. "At that point, I was just trusting my eyes, and fortunately I got a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it."
"[The win] was even more special because Mac came up with a hit," Clapp said. "He's been taking the brunt of the work on some tough days for us, and he's been clutch all year."
The visitors took a 1-0 lead in the second inning, when center fielder Jordan Tripp blasted a 2-1 pitch beyond the left-field bullpen for a solo home run. Tripp has been a ValleyCats killer all season long for Vermont - though the outfielder is batting just .214 against all other teams, he is 12 for 31 at the plate against Tri-City pitchers and has hit safely in all eight meetings.
For most of the game, it appeared that Tripp's blast would hold up. Vermont starter Drew Granier, relying heavily on a curveball with nasty horizontal movement, struck out seven batters in 5.1 innings and allowed only four hits, all singles. The hosts got two runners on base in the third and fourth innings, but Granier induced groundballs to get out of both jams.
The 'Cats had another golden opportunity in the sixth inning, but once again they could not cash in. Gominsky stayed with an 0-2 curveball and poked a two-hopper through the box for a single, and he was joined on base by Zach Johnson after a one-out walk, knocking Granier out of the game. Reliever Drew Bailey induced a flyout but walked Drew Muren on four pitches, loading the bases with two away.
Left fielder Chris Epps, appearing in his first game with the ValleyCats after a promotion from the Gulf Coast League, worked the count full and took a 3-2 curveball that he believed to be ball four. But as Epps tossed his bat aside, he watched plate umpire Brian Rilley punch him out on strikes, denying the 'Cats a run and ending the inning.
Perez settled into a groove after Tripp's homer, allowing only one runner to reach scoring position after the second inning. Locating his fastball well to set up a knockout changeup, the righty struck out five batters and retired 11 of 12 hitters in one stretch.
After the leadoff batter reached base in the seventh inning, Clapp lifted Perez and turned to Dayan Diaz. The righty rose to the occasion, blowing a 94-mph fastball by Tripp for one out, going up the ladder with another heater to fan Xavier Macklin and freezing Jacob Tanis with a two-strike fastball on the inside corner.
Diaz worked into some trouble in the next inning, putting runners on the corners with two out, but threw a 95-mph fastball past Chad Lewis to escape the jam.
Clapp had few words to describe his pitchers' performance. "Outstanding. Impeccable."
Gominsky started things again in the eighth inning, leading off the frame with a one-hopper that bounced off Bailey into unmanned territory for an infield single. Zach Johnson continued the rally, taking an 0-2 pitch up the middle for a clean safety, setting the stage for Valenzuela's big hit.
Valenzuela, who missed the first month of the season with a broken hamate bone and spent a short time rehabbing in the Gulf Coast League, joined the team on Tuesday and was playing his first game at Joe Bruno Stadium.
"I was nervous," Valenzuela said. "All the guys were talking about how great the atmosphere is and how great the fans are, and I was just happy I was able to give them a big hit tonight."
The 'Cats, now riding a two-game win streak, will have the opportunity to sweep the home half of the four-game split series tomorrow night against the Lake Monsters. Jonas Dufek takes the mound for the hosts against Kurt Wunderlich at 7 p.m.