PRINCETON, WV - As they have all season, the Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays battled through another tight game in the Mercer Cup series. In the bottom of the 13th inning, the Rays edged the Blue Jays 4-3 on Matt Dean's throwing error. Princeton clinched the best-of-11 series, leading 6-4 with one game to play. The Rays' bullpen retired the last 26 Bluefield hitters.
Princeton walked off for the second straight night to take back the Cup and win it for the third time in four years. Brandon Martin, whose ninth-inning single won Tuesday night's game for the Rays, walked on four pitches against Shane Davis (L, 0-1). Reid Redman hit a grounder to third and Dean's throw to first was short of the bag and skipped into shallow right field. Martin raced all the way around from first to score the winning run and ignite a celebration at Hunnicutt Field.
Bluefield led 3-0 after the top of the first inning, but the offense soon disappeared and did not put a man on base after Christian Lopes singled with one out in the fifth. Eli Echarry pitched five shutout innings of two-hit ball before Nick Sawyer entered in the ninth and turned in four perfect frames with eight strikeouts to get through the 12th. Pedro Silvestre (W, 1-0) set the Jays down 1-2-3 in the 13th, finishing the string of 26 straight outs, nearly a perfect-game's worth.
That performance should not overshadow the marvelous job by the Bluefield relievers, who did not allow an earned run in seven innings. Griffin Murphy had his 13-inning scoreless streak snapped in the seventh, but he still hasn't surrendered an earned run in 15 and two-thirds innings over his last seven outings. Wil Browning escaped three potential game-winning rallies and Joe Spano tossed a scoreless 11th and 12th without allowing a hit. Davis took the defeat on an unearned run.
The Jays burst out of the gate quickly in the must-win contest, plating three runs six batters into the game. Jorge Vega-Rosado walked and Eric Arce singled before Lopes singled to put Bluefield up before an out was recorded by starter Jonathan Weaver. Dwight Smith Jr. singled to load the bases before Santiago Nessy lifted a sacrifice fly and Nico Taylor knocked an RBI single.
Princeton immediately got a run back when Brandon Martin led off the bottom of the first with a home run off Deivy Estrada. The Bluefield lefty settled in to retire nine of ten before Oscar Hernandez went deep in the fourth to cut the lead to 3-2. Estrada allowed only the two runs on five hits. He struck out six without issuing a walk before handing the lead to the bullpen.
The Rays' game-tying rally started innocently when Martin blooped a two-out double that was barely fair. Redman walked and with Andrew Toles at the plate, the catcher Nessy tried to pick Redman off of first and threw the ball into right field, sending Martin home and making it 3-3. Murphy stranded the go-ahead run at third, it was the first of four straight frames that the Jays kept the go-ahead or tying run in scoring position.
Murphy put Ariel Soriano at second in the eighth before Browning relieved him with two outs. Darryl George hit a bouncer to second base that Lopes bobbled and threw to the covering pitcher. Browning recorded the out and saved the day with a terrific stretch at first base. Princeton hitting coach Reinaldo Ruiz was manning the first base box and was immediately ejected in a heated argument with field umpire Travis Godec about the play. It would not be Browning's last great escape.
With runners at first and second and two outs in the ninth, Browning struck out James Harris Jr. to force extras. A leadoff single, a hit batsman on a two-strike pitch and a bunt single loaded the bases for Princeton with no outs in the tenth. Browning struck out George before Omar Narvaez lined out to Smith, who was playing very shallow in center field with the winning run 90 feet away. The side-winding righty Browning completed his brilliant outing by inducing a popout to the second baseman Lopes.
Spano worked around a one-out walk in the 11th by striking out the side and after Vega-Rosado's throwing error at shortstop put the winning run at second with no outs in the 12th, Spano wriggled out of the jam and ended his night with his fourth punch-out. Both bullpens were magnificent, between Princeton's perfect run and Bluefield limiting the Rays' bats to 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position for the game.
The 13-inning contest finished well short of Princeton's season high (last week's 12-9 win at Pulaski that took two days and 23 innings to finish). It was Bluefield's longest game since July 21, 2010, when they were an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. That was also a 13-inning walk-off defeat, a 7-6 loss at Kingsport.
Bluefield led the Mercer Cup 4-2, but dropped four straight to Princeton as the Rays took back the trophy. It is the ninth time in 21 seasons that Princeton has won the title, with six coming in the last eight years. The Rays will go for a sweep of the series on Thursday night with Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg still sitting on 1,298 career victories. Two right-handers square off in the Mercer Cup finale when Bluefield's Tucker Jensen (2-1, 4.18) faces Alex Keudell (2-2, 1.99) of Princeton. First pitch at Hunnicutt Field set for 7:05 p.m.
Tune in for the radio call right here on BluefieldJays.com!
Tickets for all Blue Jays home games are available at the Bowen Field box office, the Tickets page on BluefieldJays.com, and by phone at 304-324-1326.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.