Series Wrap: Ems Drop Two of Three, But Now Poised To Clinch Playoff Spot
Nate Gartrell, EDN
The Eugene Emeralds have scuffled as of late; they’ve lost their last three series, including their most recent home stand against the Vancouver Canadians, their division rivals. But, if they win once more, or if the Canadians lose, none of that will matter.
That’s because the Ems, after taking two tough loses Thursday and Friday, were able to salvage a win Saturday evening, and have lowered their magic number to one.
After the first half of the season, which ends after Monday’s game, all teams’ records in the Northwest League will restart at 0-0, a rule designed to give the playoffs more diversity. Player stats, unlike team records, do not change when the first half ends. The four best teams (two from each half) will compete for the Northwest League Championship at the end of the season.
Now, the Ems stand poised to become one of those teams, needing but one more victory to do so. Even they don’t win, and the Canadians lose their games too, the Ems’ will be guaranteed a playoff spot.
“If we get a win tomorrow, that’ll be big for us,” said Ems’ first baseman Zach Kometani after Saturday’s game. “Hopefully we battle hard like we did tonight and come out with a ‘W’.”
A week ago, it seemed all but certain that the Ems’ would clinch, but their performance as of late has made things interesting. They went 2-6 on their latest road trip in series against the Canadians and Tri-City Dust Devils, and still led the Canadians by two games in the Western Division going into Thursday’s game. But that lead quickly dissolved.
On Thursday’s 2-1 loss, it wasn’t clear whether the Canadians won or the Ems beat themselves. On one hand, Canadians’ pitching was dominant, and there was little the Ems could do offensively. Canadians’ starting pitcher Justin Nicolino (5-1) struck out nine Ems over five innings, in which he didn’t surrender a hit.
“We’ve been in a little struggle lately, the past couple weeks,” said Kometani after Thursday’s game. “They had a good pitcher out there today, which didn’t help.”
Additionally, the Ems made some mental mistakes early, allowing the Canadians to score without a hit. In the top of the third, with runners on first and second, Ems’ catcher Jeremy Rodriguez threw behind the runner at first, outfielder Jonathan Jones, attempting to pick him off. Instead, the runner at second, left fielder Matt Newman, ran to third.
Jones then attempted to steal second later in the at-bat, and Rodriguez threw to the bag. Newman, who had taken a wide secondary lead from third base, then trotted home on the throw.
“We faced a very good pitcher–one of the best in the league,” said Ems’ Manager Pat Murphy after Thursday’s game. “Our pitching kept us in the game, and our defense let us down early.”
“There’s no sense in complaining or explaining, just keep playing. I enjoy a club that doesn’t quit, even if we’re kicking the ball around.”
The Canadians made it 2-0 in the fifth when second baseman Jon Berti hit his first home run of the season, a solo shot, off reliever Mark Pope.
The Ems didn’t score until the seventh, when first baseman Kometani broke up the no-hitter with a two-out single, and stole second. Pinch hitter Jose Dore then drove Kometani in with a solid single to center. Other than that, there was little offense to speak of for Eugene; from the second inning to the seventh, 17 Ems were retired in a row.
Adding insult to injury for the Ems’ was a dispute between Murphy and both umpires, which ultimately led to Murphy’s ejection in the seventh.
The trouble started in the bottom of the second, when Rodriguez struck out looking on a corner pitch to end the frame. Several dozen fans booed loudly following the call, and Murphy came out to talk to home plate umpire Travis Eggerts in between innings.
Then, in the seventh, Ems’ shortstop Jace Peterson attempted to steal second after drawing a lead-off walk, and was called out in a close play. Murphy argued that call too, and umpire Matthew Czajak promptly tossed him.
Murphy stuck around for several minutes after his ejection, during which time his voice sharpened and rose incrementally, until he was screaming at Czajak, and the two were standing nose-to-nose. After the game, Murphy no longer seemed angry.
“They’re trying to do their best, and you’re going to have disagreements,” said Murphy of the umpiring crew. “But they’re, for the most part, doing a good job.”
On Friday, the Ems got behind early, and never seemed to have a chance. Ems starting pitcher James Needy (0-3) gave up a run in each of the first three innings. The last batter Needy faced, Balbino Fuenmayor, crushed a two-run home run over the left field fence.
“Needy’s line doesn’t look very good, but until he gave up the home run, he was pitching pretty good,” said Murphy after Friday’s game. “We gave up three runs without giving up a hard hit ball in the first three innings.”
The Ems didn’t score until the sixth, on a sac fly hit by right fielder Lee Orr. By that time, though, the score was 5-1, Vancouver. The Ems showed little offensive prowess after that; they didn’t get a hit, didn’t make it past second base and ultimately lost 7-1.
“We were bound to come back down to earth a little bit after a 14-game win streak,” said Murphy after Friday’s game. “This is the first game we’ve been out of in a long time.”
After the Ems’ loss on Friday, they were tied in the Western Division with Vancouver, with three games left in the first half. Murphy, though, displayed reserved confidence that his team would succeed.
“We’re capable of doing well over the next three games,” said Murphy. “I believe we’re gonna do it (clinch), but that doesn’t do any good.”
On Saturday evening, the Ems’ defense looked sharper, and they fixed some of the problems that have been plaguing the team these past few games to secure a 2-1 victory. Leading the charge was starting pitcher John Barbato (1-1), who gave up one earned run over six innings and struck out 10.
“Everything was working, just pounding the zone,” said Barbato after Saturday’s game. “I wasn’t really worried about strikeouts, just trying to throw strikes. And they swung through ’em.”
The Ems’ broke through in the fifth when Kyle Gaedele led off with a single, moved to second on a walk, and scored off of a single to right by third baseman Jorge Minyety. It was the first time all series that the Ems scored first.
In the top of the sixth, though, the Canadians got to Barbato, and tied the game. The inning started with a deep double to the warning track by left fielder Newman, and the Canadians used two productive outs two move Newman to third, and then home.
Relief pitcher Chris Wilkes (3-0), picked up where Barbato left off, striking out two in two scoreless innings of work, and securing his third win of the season. He only faced two more than the minimum.
Murphy called the Ems’ hitting “anemic” as of late, pointed out that they were 0-4 in clutch situations Saturday, and that Ems’ batters missed two hit-and-run calls, which resulted in runners being thrown out at second. All of that it true. But the Ems also showed a spark late in the game, when they sneaked the winning run across in the bottom of the eighth.
With one out in the eighth, shortstop Peterson hit a routine grounder to third baseman Fuenmayor, who fielded it cleanly, but then airmailed the throw, allowing Peterson to reach base.
Then, with right fielder Orr batting, Peterson took off for second on a Canadians’ pitch-out. Peterson looked like he’d be easily tagged out, but he slid hard into the bag, and second baseman Jon Berti dropped the ball.
After Orr flew out, Kometani came to bat, and smacked a ground ball single up the middle. Center fielder Jones charged to the ball, and hurled an accurate line drive throw home. Again, Peterson looked like he’d be called out on another bang-bang play. But he slid around the tag and was ruled safe, giving the Ems the lead.
“It was a slider. He left it up over the middle of the plate, so I used the middle of the field,” said Kometani when asked about the at-bat.
Ems’ closer Kevin Quackenbush then struck out two en route to his ninth save of the year. In so doing, Quackenbush lowered his ERA to 0.46 on the year. It was an exciting game, and the Ems’ spirits appeared to have improved after it.
“They’re aware of it,” said Murphy, when asked how his team felt about the magic number. “These kids are on everything, everything’s on the internet. When I was here (Murphy played in the Northwest League) you were lucky if you had a radio announcer who made it the whole game.”
“I’m happy for ’em. I’m really happy for ’em. Genuinely happy for ’em. As a team, we’re not firing from all cylinders, but hopefully we keep going.”
-The Ems have played the Canadians for the last time this season, and tomorrow, they play their first home game against the Mariners’ affiliate, the Everett Aqua-Sox.
-Ems’ outfielder Donavan Tate, suspended for his use of synthetic cannabis, is set to return Sunday’s game. Tate was drafted third overall in 2009, and is widely considered one of the Ems’ best players. Murphy said he is unsure as to whether Tate will start Sunday.
-Ems’ pitchers Paul Bingham and Matthew Stites, as well as first baseman Daniel Garce were all moved to the AZL Padres this week. In their place are catcher Dan Killian and pitcher Kyle Brule.