By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — The last time the Charlotte Stone Crabs hosted Daytona at their home ballpark in 2015, they walked off against the Tortugas in extra innings to claim the five-game series and the Floirida State League title.
So far in 2016, though, the Stone Crabs haven’t had the same success against the team that trudged off the field as they doused each other in beer and champagne last September. With a 4-3 victory Wednesday night, Daytona clinched the first of the teams’ two four-game sets this season.
Charlotte hasn’t been far off, losing by one on Monday, three in a rain-shortened game Tuesday and one again on Wednesday. But a close loss is still a loss, and that’s now four in a row by less than three runs.
Of course, it’s hard to compare teams year-to-year in High-A baseball. Of the nine hitters and four pitchers that saw action for the Stone Crabs on Wednesday, only two appeared in more than one game for Charlotte last season and only one — reliever Jordan Harrison — was even active during the postseason.
Still, manager Michael Johns said, “We’ve got to learn how to win these games.”
This year’s team was close on Wednesday night. Between rehabbing Tampa Bay Rays closer Brad Boxberger and piggybacking starter Chris Pike, the Stone Crabs started Game 3 against Daytona with six shutout innings, scattering just four hits over those frames.
The offense, meanwhile, had given the team a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. Alec Sole hit a solo home run off Tortugas starter Tejay Antone, and two subsequent singles from Grant Kay and Thomas Milone led to a successful safety squeeze bunt from Riley Unroe.
But things unraveled for Pike and the Stone Crabs in the seventh. Daytona’s Ty Washington, Avain Rachal and Chadwick Tromp led off the frame with three straight singles to load the bases, and Jonathan Reynoso tied the game with a two-run double into the left-field corner.
Ronald Bueno drove in Reynoso with a fifth straight single to give the Tortugas their first lead later that frame, and Tromp doubled it an inning later off Harrison when he drove in Taylor Sparks with a RBI base hit.
“That’s how quick it can happen,” Johns said. “He left some balls up later in the counts, which he doesn’t do normally. I thought he pitched in well, he pitched down. I thought he pitched a good game. But when you keep losing tight games like this — they can’t be perfect.”
The last run proved to be the decisive blow. Cade Gotta brought the Stone Crabs back within one with his third home run of the season in the bottom of the eighth, and Charlotte put the leadoff man on in the ninth before Daytona reliever Nick Howard struck out Kay looking to record his first save of the season.
Antone (eight innings, eight hits, three runs, two strikeouts) earned his third win while Pike (six innings, eight hits, three runs, two strikeouts) suffered his team-high fourth loss.
“Sometimes it just goes like that. You’re going to lose by one run,” Pike said. “It just takes one bad inning, one bad play to give it away. And that’s what we’re in right now.”
TORTUGAS 4, STONE CRABS 3
HITTER OF THE NIGHT
Cade Gotta, Stone Crabs: The right fielder went 2-for-4 at the plate and hit his third home run of the year to raise his batting average to a team-best .336.
PITCHER OF THE NIGHT
Brad Boxberger, Stone Crabs: The injured Tampa Bay Rays closer continued his road back from March core muscle repair surgery, allowing a hit and a walk in a scoreless first inning in his second rehab appearance.
Seventh: Charlotte led 2-0 entering the frame before Daytona erased the advantage, leading off the top of the frame with five straight singles to take a 3-2 lead.
THEY SAID IT
Right-hander Chris Pike: “The whole game, we were kind of getting quick outs. Then right away, five hits in a row, seven, eight pitches — it wasn’t a whole lot, but they capitalized on my mistakes. They hit some good pitches. It happened really quick.”