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Facing the situation all hitters dream of, Neal Pritchard delivered in a big way Saturday night at Cardinal Park.
Williams’ walk-off single in the ninth inning lifted Johnson City to a 4-3 win over Bluefield and within one game of clinching a second straight Appalachian League championship.
“It started with the previous at-bats in the inning when I saw him struggling with his command,” Pritchard said after lacing the game winner off Bluefield’s Jonathan Lucas. “I went up there with the approach with two men on and one out, he was going to have to throw strikes to me. He fell behind early with three balls.
“He came back at me, but I knew he had to throw three fastballs. So, I watched two go by to get a full count and the third one, I was just going to get the head (of the bat) out and put the ball where they weren’t. It worked out for us.”
To win back-to-back titles, however, the Cardinals must go on the road as game two is scheduled today at 6 p.m. and a third game if necessary will be on Monday at 6 p.m.
For Pritchard, his hit gave Johnson City its only lead all night. The Cards fell behind 3-0 in the first inning and didn’t tie the game until earlier in the inning when Bryvic Valera tripled and Matt Williams followed with a sacrifice fly.
Tyler Rahmatulla then singled and Gary Apelian walked. It set the stage for Pritchard, who drove in Rahmatulla for the winning run.
“Valera totally got the momentum started our way,” Pritchard said. “Willie drove him in and from there, we felt it was our ballgame to win. The bottom of the ninth, that’s the situation you wait for. I just prayed I would get my opportunity. You look for that moment and I was glad to get that accomplishment.”
While it wasn’t indicated in the score, Johnson City outhit the Blue Jays by a 12-2 margin. Bluefield’s lone runs came after Kevin Pillar posted a three-run shot following two walks in the first inning.
Jose Pasen gave up the early home run, but was solid otherwise, lasting five innings. Chris Constantino came in for the next three innings and Michael Santana closed it out in the ninth, as the Blue Jays didn’t have a hit after the third.
“You can’t say enough about Pasen,” Johnson City manager Mike Shildt said. “The two walks before the homer is what hurt him, but he settled down and really pitched well. He threw up zeroes and kept us in the game. Then, Constantino pitches out of jam in the eighth, and Santana comes in with a scoreless ninth. It kept us right there.”
Down 3-0 in the seventh inning, Johnson City rallied with back-to-back RBI doubles by Rahmatulla and Apelian. A base-running mistake, however, doomed the Cardinals’ chances of getting any more runs as Bluefield clung to the one-run lead.
Still, the Cardinals, who had two hits each from Valera, Rahmatulla and Apelian, battled back as Shildt pointed out they had all season.
“This is what we do,” Shildt said. “We’re just fortunate to be with these guys. It’s a real blessing to have this group who competes well and wants to play. They’re real aggressive and they’ve got abilities. It’s a great combination.”