Game by game, play by play, pitch by pitch, the River Cats are slowly chipping away at the lead of the rival Fresno Grizzlies.
With a 4-3 win in the 11th inning Friday night, Sacramento now trails first-place Fresno by 5.0 games in the Pacific Coast League South Division after being 12.5 games back on June 15.
The game was settled when Josh Donaldson hit a dribbler up the middle with runners on first and third. Dallas McPherson came home as Fresno attempted the inning-ending double play. Shortstop Ryan Rholinger picked up the ball, forced Matt Carson out at second and fired to first. First baseman Brett Pill tried to pick it, but could not handle the low throw. Donaldson was safe at first and McPherson had the winning run before a sellout crowd of 14,014 at Raley Field.
"It was by far the worst walk off I have ever had," Donaldson said. "I was still trying to get a ball to the outfield, but I rolled one over to the shortstop. It was relieving because we didn't have to keep playing and we got the win. Any time you get a win it's good."
The inning started with a Chris Carter walk off of reliever Osiris Matos. McPherson hit a ground ball to second baseman Emmanuel Burris, who flipped to Rohlinger. Rohlinger was taken out by Carter, and McPherson beat out the throw to keep the out at one.
"That was all Carter," McPherson said. "He took the guy out at second. He didn't hesitate."
Carson singled to right-center, putting runners on first and third before Donaldson's big RBI.
In the eighth inning, reliever Brad Kilby brought out the Rally Pants with Sacramento trailing 3-2. Kilby's good luck charm sparked another River Cats rally, starting with a Steve Tolleson lead-off triple off reliever Tony Pena.
The hit was attributed to a Grizzly defensive mishap, where Tolleson's drive into left-center caused center fielder Eugenio Velez and left fielder John Bowker to collide. The ball bounced off both players' gloves, falling on the ground and bouncing off the wall. Matt Watson poked a clutch hit through the left side off new pitcher Gino Espinelli to score Tolleson from third.
Reliever Ross Wolf came in for the River Cats in what turned out to be a wild ninth inning. Matt Downs led off the inning by getting aboard on a McPherson error at third. Jesus Guzman singled to right field, and Michael Taylor's throw to third allowed him to advance to second. Downs was safe at third.
What happened next was an incredible defensive stand by the Cats, with runners on second and third and no out. Tolleson made the play of the night at shortstop, snagging a Tyler Graham ground ball and firing home to nail Downs, who represented the go-ahead run.
Jackson Williams then hit a squibbler to first baseman Carter, advancing the runners but giving Fresno their second out. Wolf got out of the jam by striking out Emmanuel Burris, leaving Fresno empty handed.
Relievers dominated the 10th, with Espinelli and Edwar Ramirez of Sacramento retiring the side. River Cats manager Tony DeFrancesco argued balls and strikes during a Watson at-bat, getting him ejected from the game. DeFrancesco was tossed by home plate umpire Darren Budahn, and let third base umpire Jeff Latter have it on his way back to the clubhouse.
Play didn't get any less intense.
With Ramirez still in, Downs doubled down the left-field line with one out. After Guzman struck out, Donaldson attempted to throw out Downs at second. His throw went into center field, and Downs advanced to third. Graham hit a sharp ground ball down the third-base line, but McPherson, unaffected by his earlier error, made a slick stop and threw Graham out to end the threat.
"I just reacted," McPherson said. "I'm pretty confident in my defense. I'll make errors, but I won't let one get to me."
Oakland A's roving instructor and Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson gave his thoughts after the game.
"It's just good to be out here with the kids," said Henderson, who also coached first base. "I just want to give them the knowledge that I know after playing the game. Just trying to give them lessons and make them become what they want to be as a baseball player."
Starting on the bump for Fresno was right-hander Joe Martinez, who entered with a 5-2 record and a 3.38 ERA.
"He's got tough sinkers and cutters," first baseman Chris Carter said before the game. "If we can stretch him up in the zone, I think we'll be fine."
Corey Wimberly jumped on Martinez to lead off the game with a walk. Wimberly then stole second, his 30th steal of the season. Matt Watson won a 3-2 battle with Martinez and blasted a home run over the right-field fence to give Sacramento the early lead.
The Grizzlies answered in the second against River Cats starter John Halama with a Matt Downs home run. Downs' jack was a low line drive that flew like a laser beam through the air and landed in the Jackson Rancheria Home Run Terrace in left field.
Sacramento's defense tightened in the third, making two great defensive plays. McPherson made a leaping catch on a Burris line drive over his head. After Eugenio Velez reached base on a single, catcher Donaldson nailed him at second on an attempted steal.
The web gems kept coming in the fourth, when a great double play turned by Carter ended the inning. He snagged a John Bowker line drive on a dive, and then doubled off Rohlinger at first for the force out.
"I just take every game the same way," Carter said. "I believe if I just stay focused I can have a good game."
Fresno tied the game in the fifth with the eight and nine spot hitters Graham and Williams. Graham hit a two-out blooper into the right-field corner for a double. He then got an excellent jump on Halama and swiped third. A clutch, seven-pitch at-bat by Williams ended in a single, bringing Graham in for the run.
The Grizzlies almost broke the tie in the sixth, when Rohlinger and Brett Pill hit back-to-back singles. Bowker beat out a double-play ball to put runners on first and third. DeFrancesco decided to remove pitcher Halama and bring in reliever Jon Hunton. Hunton forced a line-out from Downs to end the inning.
Halama finished the night with 5.2 innings pitched, eight hits, two earned runs, two walks and two strikeouts. Alex Hinshaw relieved Martinez in the sixth, ending a solid pitching battle in the middle of a tied game. Martinez finished with three hits, two earned runs, and seven strikeouts.
The game continued to be dictated by the long ball. In the seventh, Jesus Guzman of Fresno took Hunton deep, sending a big fly to deep center field. The homer was Guzman's 10th of the season.
The River Cats play Fresno again Saturday at 6:35 p.m. Another win will put the River Cats within 4.0 games of Fresno with eight games left before the All-Star game.
"Right now they (The River Cats) seem like they are playing a lot better," said Henderson, who also visited Sacramento in April. "They've built up their confidence a lot since the first time I was here. They're taking a better approach in what they want to do out there now."