With the breaks going its way, Princeton was fully ready to take advantage Saturday night at Cardinal Park.
Pushed ahead by Cameron Seitzer’s solo home run in the top of the 10th inning, the Rays scored a 3-2 victory over Johnson City and kept pace with Bluefield in the Appalachian League East Division standings.
“It’s awful early to talk about a race,” Rays coach Marty DeMerritt said after his team improved to 14-11. “Other than one series at Burlington, we’ve been playing good baseball with a lot of young kids. I’m surprised how well some of these young kids are playing because two-thirds of them are one year out of high school. It’s great to see them produce and improve the way they are.”
For the Cardinals (18-7), it was just their second loss in their last eight games and it came with the ejection of manager Mike Shildt after a trio of controversial calls.
Up 2-0 in the fifth inning, the Cardinals’ Steven Ramos was called out for a third out while standing at third base on a ruling that he didn’t tag second base.
In the top of the sixth, Princeton’s tying run scored as Josh Sale was hit in the back of the helmet by Johnson City pitcher Tyrell Jenkins who was trying to lob the ball to first base. Shildt argued to no avail that Sale moved off the base path.
Then, Shildt was ejected in the final inning after Seitzer’s home run. He argued that Seitzer should have been called out on a third strike on the previous pitch.
Shildt didn’t comment on the calls, but instead talked about the performance of Jenkins, who allowed just one earned run in six innings as a starter.
“The consistency of his pitches has improved dramatically,” Shildt said. “Tonight he pitched beyond this league in the sense that his fastball was both sides, down in the zone, and his change-up was way under the zone. A few of his breaking balls were inconsistent, but he threw a couple that were lights out. It was just a quality outing.”
Neil Pritchard, batting in the 9-hole, gave Johnson City the early lead with a solo home run in the third inning. Tyler Rahmatulla then added the second run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly to center field, which scored Jesus Montero. It came on the same play that Ramos was ruled out because he didn’t tag up at second.
After the Rays tied the game in the sixth, both teams’ bullpens shut down the other team until the extra inning home run by Seitzer.
The Princeton coach was particularly pleased with the efforts of Reinaldo Lopez, who came in to relief starter Eduar Quinonez in the fifth inning. Lopez threw five innings with six strikeouts and no earned runs to improve to 2-1 on the season.
DeMerritt also praised the young lineup, which included 19-year-old right fielder Drew Vettleson going 2-for-3 on the night and reaching base two other times on walks.
“The kids we have, they weren’t only picked on their abilities, but also for their makeup,” DeMerritt said. “What I’ve seen a third of the way through the season, I’ve seen a lot of kids who are gamers. They talk a lot of baseball amongst each other and it’s nice to see.”
The Cardinals were outhit 11-7, but were able to take some solace in how hard they hit the ball. They flew out to the outfield nine times, including twice in the 10th inning when Pritchard and Ramos both hit balls to the warning track.
“We just couldn’t put together any consistent offense,” Shildt said. “We put some good swings on baseballs, but they also pitched well. It was a well-played game and we just came up short at the end.”