By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Jace Conrad had the green light on the first pitch he saw from Daytona left-hander Brennan Bernardino.
When it passed by for a called strike, he had a pretty good idea of what sign he’d see when he looked toward third base.
With runners on the corners and two outs in the bottom of the 13th inning, manager Michael Johns signaled for a safety squeeze — one of his favorite plays in the book. It worked to perfection.
Conrad dropped a bunt between Bernardino and first baseman Brian O’Grady that neither of them could field, scoring Mac James from third and sending the Stone Crabs pouring onto the field to celebrate their first walk-off win of the season, 3-2, over the Tortugas.
“Have you ever seen it not work?” Conrad said of the safety squeeze. “It was the smart move. We had to win this game. We’ve come up short in a couple extra-inning games and have been scuffling in the past few games, so anything to help our team get a chance to win right there.”
It was a much-needed breakthrough for Charlotte, which capped a 10-game homestand with a win after losing six of the first nine and the previous four straight.
In the six innings prior, the Stone Crabs had put the go-ahead or game-winning run on base five times. But until the 13th, they had nothing to show for it, going 0-for-5 with runners on base and leaving eight men on.
In that final frame, though, everything came together. James led off with a single against Bernardino, Bralin Jackson sacrificed him to second and Grant Kay singled to put runners on the corners for Conrad.
“Jace is so good at knowing exactly if the (first baseman) is there. He has to get (ball) past the pitcher,” Johns said. “Obviously, we weren’t getting the guy in from third by swinging the bat, so you have to try anything in the 13th inning. It was a well-played game and much-needed, grind-it-out win.”
Daytona held the game’s first lead against Stone Crabs starter Yonny Chirinos, who was making a second start in place of Rays No. 2 prospect Brent Honeywell (right arm tenderness).
Ty Washington and Avain Rachal hit back-to-back doubles to plate the visitor’s first run in the second inning, and Ronald Bueno hit a solo home run to extend the lead to 2-0 in the third.
But Charlotte matched that total in the fifth inning against Daytona left-hander Ismael Guillon. Cristian Toribio was nearly picked off at first base after his two-out single, a play so close that Rachal was running off the field as base umpire Jonathan Parra gave the safe sign.
A few pitches later, Riley Unroe deposited a two-strike, two-out, game-tying home run into the Tortugas bullpen in left field.
“If he gets picked off, we’re out of here two hours ago,” Johns said. “The little things matter, especially in these tight games.”
And as well as the Stone Crabs pitched, it almost felt inevitable that the offense would eventually get its chance to complete the come-from-behind victory.
Despite the two early runs allowed, Chirinos only needed 68 pitches to get through seven innings, scattering six hits and striking out two. Mike Franco followed with a career-high seven strikeouts over three perfect frames, and Edwin Fierro improved to 2-0 after allowing just two hits — both with two outs in the 11th — over three scoreless frames.
“They were dominant, man,” Conrad said. “It doesn’t matter who you bring in. It could be the first inning, it could be the 13th inning: The guy that you see is going to pitch with some guts.”
STONE CRABS 3, TORTUGAS 2
HITTER OF THE NIGHT
Jace Conrad, Stone Crabs: The right fielder went 3-for-5 with a double and a triple, but it was the game-winning bunt single on a safety squeeze in the 13th inning that will be remembered.
PITCHER OF THE NIGHT
Mike Franco, Stone Crabs: On a night where all three Charlotte pitchers were good, Franco was perfect, striking out a career-high seven over three hitless innings.
13th: Mac James singled, Bralin Jackson sacrificed him to second and Grant Kay singled to put runners on the corners so Conrad could drive in the winning run.
THEY SAID IT
Manager Michael Johns: “I’m just glad for these guys, for us to grind that one out. We needed it. We needed it bad. We needed to scrap one across one way or the other. That bus ride (today) won’t be as bad and it won’t be as early when you win the night before.”