By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — You don’t often hear of mid-June baseball games being referred to as the home stretch.
But with the Florida State League playing a two-half schedule, this week is the home stretch for the Stone Crabs.
And if Charlotte entered the week with a chance at repeating as first-half champions, Monday’s 4-1 loss to Dunedin severely damaged it. Even with Bradenton’s loss at Clearwater, the Stone Crabs are still three games back with just five to play.
The costly defeat came from an unlikely source: With the game tied at one in the top of the seventh inning, right-hander Mike Franco entered and eventually allowed the game-deciding three-run home run to Blue Jays first baseman Ryan McBroom.
“It was like a cement-mixer that just hung,” Franco said of the slider McBroom belted out of the park. “But there are no excuses. I have to go out and execute pitches, and if you don’t execute a pitch, it will be taken advantage of by the good hitters in this league.”
Entering Monday’s contest, Franco had arguably been one of the most dominant relievers in the league. In 20 innings over 12 appearances dating to April 14 — a stretch of nearly two full months — Franco had allowed just one earned run while striking out 28.
But Dunedin touched up the right-hander early on Monday. Gunnar Heidt greeted him with a double, Jonathan Davis sacrificed him to third and Richard Urena worked a four-pitch walk. After Franco recorded the second out on a bullet line drive to second, McBroom put an 0-1 pitch on the boardwalk in left-center.
“It’s baseball. Things are going to happen. You can’t always be perfect,” said Franco, whose ERA ballooned nearly a full run from 1.54 to 2.49 as he took his second loss. “You try to be, but yeah, it’s frustrating. But you just have to go out there, keep competing and keep throwing strikes.”
Franco’s mistake undid a strong outing from starter Benton Moss, who survived seven hits and a walk to allow just one run — also on a home run to Emilio Guerrero off the Budweiser sign in center field — over five-plus innings.
The right-hander exited after allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, but Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Jonny Venters, working his way back from three Tommy John surgeries since 2012, stranded the runner and struck out two in his third appearance since June 4.
“He just kept competing. It seemed like he got better with runners on,” manager Michael Johns said of Moss, who helped Charlotte limit the Blue Jays to 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. “He kept us in the game.”
Moss wasn’t nearly as impressive as Dunedin starter Conner Greene, who didn’t allow a baserunner until Thomas Milone reached on an error with two outs in the third. Greene didn’t surrender his first hit until Justin Williams doubled with two outs in the fourth, but his effect on the game was the same.
Alec Sole followed the Williams double with a game-tying stand-up triple scorched down the right-field line. That put the Stone Crabs’ lone run on the line of Green, who gave up three hits and two walks while striking out six in six innings.
But even when Green finally left the game, Charlotte got no respite. The Dunedin starter’s mid-90s velocity was followed by more of the same from Tim Mayza and Carlos Ramirez, who allowed just one hit over three otherwise flawless frames to preserve the road victory.
“Overall, it was a good night,” Johns said. “But we just got beat. Plain and simple.”
BLUE JAYS 4, STONE CRABS 1
HITTER OF THE GAME
Ryan McBroom, Blue Jays: Went 2-for-4 and contributed what proved to be the decisive blow when he hit a two-out, three-run home run in the top of the seventh.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Benton Moss, Stone Crabs: The right-hander wasn’t pretty but he was effective, surviving seven hits and a walk to allow just one run, a solo home run, while striking out five over five-plus innings pitched.
Seventh: Tasked with preserving a 1-1 tie, Charlotte reliever instead allowed a leadoff double, one-out walk and two-out blast to McBroom as Dunedin took a three-run lead.
THEY SAID IT
Manager Michael Johns: “We faced some really, really good arms. Power arms. That’s the first thing I wrote on the comments that I’ll send in. When you’re facing power arms, sometimes they’re going to shove. And they did tonight.”