By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — It was a late-inning situation nearly identical to the one the Stone Crabs faced the last time they were at home nine days ago.
Game tied at 2, runners on the corners with one out and Jace Conrad at the plate with the chance to walk it off.
So manager Michael Johns put on the exact same safety squeeze play he did when Charlotte defeated Lakeland on May 19. Only Conrad never put his bat on the ball.
Instead, Fort Myers right-hander John Curtiss threw high, catcher Brian Navarreto couldn’t corral it and Alec Sole scampered home from third base to give the Stone Crabs a walk-off 3-2 victory over the Miracle on a passed ball.
“When the ball got over the catcher’s head, the way it kind of deflected off his glove, I knew I could get it,” Sole said. “So we’ll take that to win the game.”
Sole was the one who sparked the bottom-of-the-ninth rally for Charlotte. He walked on seven pitches to lead off the frame, then moved to third with the help of Bralin Jackson’s bunt single and a throwing error by Curtiss.
Cristian Toribio stuck out to bring up Conrad, who only saw one pitch before Sole won the game.
“It ended up working out well for us,” Johns said. “We’ll take it however we can take it.”
It was that kind of night for the Stone Crabs offense, which struggled to mount much of a charge against Miracle pitching.
Charlotte racked up 11 hits and put the leadoff man on in seven of nine innings, but that runner failed to reach second four times as rehabbing Minnesota Twins starter Kyle Gibson and reliever Nick Anderson continued to dig in with runners on base. The two allowed just a run each on 10 hits over seven innings while striking out a combined eight.
“Gibson just goes to work when he has a runner on,” Johns said of the big-leaguer, who is rehabbing a shoulder injury. “It was good to see us get punched in the face and still battle back.”
The Fort Myers offense spotted those two a 2-0 lead in the second. Edgar Corcino singled and Max Murphy doubled to lead off the frame against Greg Harris after the right-hander struck out the side in the first, and both runs eventually came around to score on an Alex Real single and a double play.
It was the first of three straight rough innings for Harris, who allowed the Miracle to put runners on the corners with two outs in the third and load the bases with two outs in the fourth. But the right-hander battled through those struggles, limiting Fort Myers to just the two second-inning runs on five hits and three walks while striking out seven over five innings.
His performance on the mound proved crucial. With the help of two stellar innings of relief each from Jeff Howell (two baserunners, three strikeouts) and Mike Franco (no baserunners, three strikeouts), it allowed the Charlotte offense to grind its way back into the game.
In the fourth, Cade Gotta reached on a leadoff single and scored on a two-out base hit from Jackson. In the sixth, the designated hitter reached on a one-out fielder’s choice and scored on Sole’s RBI single.
Sole tied the game and won it Friday night.
“It is nice. Especially because you don’t have to play extra innings,” he said. “That can kind of drag into tomorrow. So instead we get a win, feel good tomorrow and feel strong enough to take the series.”
STONE CRABS 3, MIRACLE 2
HITTER OF THE GAME
Alec Sole, Stone Crabs: The first baseman went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles and a walk, driving in the tying run and scoring the winning run.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Mike Franco, Stone Crabs: The right-hander struck out three over two perfect innings of relief, running his streak to 18 1/3 consecutive innings without an earned run allowed.
Ninth: Sole led off with a walk, moved to second on a Bralin Jackson bunt and John Curtiss throwing error, and scored on catcher Brian Navarreto’s passed ball.
THEY SAID IT
Right-hander Greg Harris: “It was a big night for battling. I had a couple of bases-loaded opportunities up there, so I just had to buckle down. I knew I needed to keep the score low for us so we could come back and get a win like we did tonight.”