The Johnson City Cardinals played Burlington Wednesday night at Cardinal Park. Burlington's shortstop #18 Ayers tags Cardinals #41 Robelys Reyes out at second. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Baseball is a nine-inning game, and on Wednesday night Johnson City needed all nine of them to stay in the playoff chase.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they took care of only eight.
Burlington rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth, earning a 5-3 victory at Cardinal Park. Johnson City was eliminated from the Appalachian League playoffs when Kingsport scored a run in the bottom of the 10th inning to defeat Bluefield.
Johnson City fell to 35-30 while Greeneville (38-28) and Kingsport (38-27) locked up the two playoff berths in the West Division with two games remaining in the regular season for all teams.
Cardinals' manager Joe Kruzel said his team still got the taste of a playoff chase, and did well without making up enough ground in the standings.
“We weren't able to put ourselves in a better situation,” said Kruzel. “We won five of six on the road, and it didn't do us any good.
“But we've been playing meaningful games for 10-12 days. It's great for these kids to start their careers with an opportunity to play meaningful games down the stretch.”
Johnson City was in position to stay alive for at least one more night, leading 3-1 heading into the top of the eighth inning. However, Alfredo Escalera-Maldonado hit a towering home run over the left-center field fence to cut the Royals' deficit.
After a walk put the tying run on base, Kruzel brought Zach Loraine to the mound. Loraine entered with an ERA of 1.43, and had only allowed six earned runs in 37 2/3 innings on the season. Loraine knocked off three batters in a row to close out the eighth inning.
However, in the top of the ninth, things came unraveled quickly. Loraine allowed a leadoff double to Nick Cuckovich, and then a single to Michael Mercurio.
Desmond Henry followed with a grounder to second baseman Robelys Reyes, who gunned down his second baserunner of the night at home plate, keeping the Cardinals ahead.
Andrew Ayers followed with a single, and then Escalera-Maldonado struck again. He looped a fly ball to right field, where Rowan Wick barely missed making a diving catch. The ball landed for a double and two runs scored to give Burlington a 4-3 lead.
After an intentional walk, Loraine threw a wild pitch to plate the final run.
“Zach has been solid all year,” said Kruzel. “It's one of those things where he has been very efficient, but tonight he left a couple of balls up in the zone.”
The Cardinals went quietly in the bottom of the ninth.
Kruzel said the game didn't boil down to a few pitches in the ninth inning.
“Everybody looks at the end,” said Kruzel. “But in the same regard, we had some opportunities earlier where we could have added to our lead.”
Blake McKnight started for the Cardinals and pitched very well. He went six innings, allowing five hits and one run with no walks and seven strikeouts.
“He always works quick, and that keeps the defense on its toes,” said Kruzel. “He's effective because he's capable of throwing three pitches for strikes. He changes speeds well, and locates his pitches.”
It was a good start at the plate for the Cardinals as leadoff hitter Vaughn Bryan singled in the bottom of the first inning. He eventually scored on Justin Ringo's sacrifice fly.
In the third inning, the Cardinals pushed their advantage to two runs on a two-out RBI single by Ronnierd Garcia.
Johnson City upped its edge to 3-0 in the bottom of the fourth inning as Kenny Peoples-Walls led off with a single and eventually scored on a wild pitch.
Burlington closed the gap with a run in the seventh inning as Alex Newman drilled a two-out RBI double off the right field fence.
Bryan and Garcia each finished with three hits for the Cardinals. Kenny Peoples-Walls added a pair of hits.
Escalera-Maldonado totaled three hits and three RBIs for the Royals (28-37). Mercurio added a pair of hits.
Cruz Guevara (3-1) got the win with four scoreless innings of relief. He has allowed just one earned run in 19 innings of work this season.