Playoffs? In May? Well, not quite…but the three game series between the Asheville Tourists and the Charleston RiverDogs sure felt like it. Big time clutch hitting, some outstanding fielding plays and some hard-nosed baseball between the leaders in the South Atlantic League‘s South Division made it feel like September. But then, there was some ghastly pitching and horrendous fielding thrown in just to remind you we are talking minor league ball…low A ball to be specific. But still, if you like baseball, McCormick Field is definitely the place to spend a few hours this season.
The division-leading Tourists hosted the second-place RiverDogs in a very interesting three-game series that very important since it was the ONLY meeting of the first half between the teams, and the opener provided thrills a-plenty. On Monday night, we witnessed a game that was as strange (“remarkable” stated ESPN 1310’s Seth Stewart) as most of us have ever witnessed.
How can I describe a 27-run, 27-hit, nine-error (yes, I said nine) game and do it justice? Let’s simply say the Tourists jumped to a 6-0 lead after three innings. In the fourth, Charleston scored three in their half and Asheville answered with two, and added another in the fifth. So, the T’s led 9-3 going into the sixth…but that’s where the fun began. If your idea of fun is having the best-fielding team in the league commit four errors in an inning (yes, Asheville did just that)…and give up 8 runs to take an 11-9 lead. Asheville responded with six runs of their own in the bottom of the inning. Yes, 14 runs in one inning. One of the wildest pitchers to appear in McCormick Field in a long time, Charleston’s Mariel Checo (5-1, 3.27 ERA…so how strange was this for him?) took the loss and Asheville’s Nelson Gonzalez was credited not only with a blown save, but also the win (3-1, 4.30). Oh, yeah, the game lasted 2 hours and 57 minutes, NOT counting a 39 minute rain delay…just for fun.
And that was just the first game. Game two began Tuesday night and ended Wednesday early in the afternoon. Mother Nature decided, with two outs in the bottom of the third inning, to pound the Asheville area with heavy rains, and, with the promise of more to come, this game was suspended only to be continued Wednesday morning.
In an 11:05 a.m. start for Education Day, in front of 2,903 loud kids,the T’s lost 19-6, and Charleston tied the series at a game apiece, setting the stage for the rubber game, which was played 39 minutes after the last pitch of the first one on Wednesday.
A win in the series finale would give Asheville a 3-1/2 game lead over Charleston while a loss would narrow the lead to just 1-1/2 games, so there was a bit of tension felt in the press box as well as on the field. Charleston’s Evan Rutckjy (1-2, 9.90), a 6’5″ Canadian pitcher, began the game with an ERA of 7.11, but for the first three innings he looked like one of the best pitchers in the league. the Tourists managed to hit the ball against him…but he still took a no-hitter into the fourth. Luckily for Evan, his RiverDogs scored four runs, giving him a commanding lead as the T’s came to the plate. Six hits and eight runs later, Asheville showed the RiverDogs why they are the team to beat in the SAL this season. Asheville’s Dan Winkler (7-2,5.03) pitched through a shaky first inning and made it through five to pick up the win.
Resilient, tough, determined…that sums up the Tourists for 2012. Skipper Joe Mikulik has the team thinking they can win every game (well, maybe not game two of this series) and they play hard until the final out. The Tourists ended up with a 10-5 victory and took two-of-three from the RiverDogs.
Asheville is leading the league in hitting and they showed why during this series. They were 6-11 with runners in scoring position in this crucial game. Their league-leading defense turned a beautiful double-play to kill a rally. And relief pitcher Ken Roberts came through once again.
Team batting leaders include Tyler Massey (left), who, in his fourth season with Asheville is having a breakthrough season (.336), Sam Mende (.324), Delta Cleary (.320) and Harold Riggins (right) ( 9 home runs and 43 RBI) give opposing pitchers nightmares.
Playoff baseball in May? This was as close to it as you’ll ever see. Two teams hitting the ball, playing exceptional baseball at times and neither team giving in. Let’s hope they meet again in early September in what could be a great series.