By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — The Stone Crabs bullpen had put itself in a perfect position to give away a potential victory for a third straight day.
Brought in to preserve a one-run lead in the sixth, Nick Sawyer — he of the 128 walks in 139 1⁄3 career innings — walked the bases loaded with one out, as he is sometimes wont to do. In his place Charlotte brought in converted knuckleballer Jeff Howell, who had walked 35 in 34 1⁄3 innings entering the day.
And Howell gave up enough contact that it looked like the Stone Crabs’ lead would surely be erased. The right-hander’s 2-1 knuckleball fluttered off the end of Derrick Loveless’ bat and bounded slowly toward shortstop, putting each of the three runners in instant motion.
Had Andrew Velazquez had to field it from the shortstop position, it would have, at the very least, tied the game. But the ball never reached his glove.
Alec Sole, diving to his left from third base, snared the ball and, from his back, flipped it to Riley Unroe at second for the first out. Unroe turned and fired to first to complete the inning-ending, rally-killing double play, preserving the lead in Charlotte’s eventual 4-2 win over Dunedin.
“That was pretty much the play of the game,” said manager Michael Johns, whose Stone Crabs, who will come out of this weekend’s All-Star break three games back of first-place Bradenton with three to play in the first half.
In the moments prior to the play, Sole said he remembered thinking that the lefty-hitting Loveless “isn’t going to slap one my way.” It surprised him a little bit. And when he dove, the ball popped in and out of his glove, trickling onto the dirt a few inches away.
“I just thought, ‘I have to get this to second as fast as I possibly can,’” Sole said. “And when I got it to second, I was looking at the runner at first and was like, ‘We’ve got a shot at this.’”
They had more than a shot. Unroe got the ball to Grant Kay quick enough that Loveless was out by a few steps on a play that proved to be the turning point in the game.
In the bottom of the same frame, Bralin Jackson hit a leadoff single off reliever Adonys Cardona and scored on Kay’s one-out double to left to increase the Stone Crabs’ lead to 3-1.
And when when Dunedin shortstop Heidt Gunnar tagged rehabbing Rays reliever Ryan Webb — who allowed two hits and struck out two in his first game since suffering a strained pectoral muscle on May 26 — for a mammoth solo home run in the top of the seventh to cut the deficit back to one, Charlotte got valuable insurance when Unroe doubled and scored on a Justin Williams single in the bottom half.
“That was exactly what we needed,” Sole said. “That’s what winning teams do. When they get one run, we get two.”
The victory sends the Stone Crabs into the All-Star break on plenty of positive notes.
On offense, Charlotte deftly manufactured its two runs in off Dunedin starter Francisco Rios. With two outs in the second, Jace Conrad collected the team’s first hit, stole second and third base, then scored on a single from Kay, who later crossed the plate after an Armando Araiza single and Rios wild pitch.
On the mound, Charlotte pitchers held Dunedin to an 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and starter Chris Pike rebounded from getting shelled for five runs (two earned) on four hits in 2⁄3 innings on Saturday to throw 4 2⁄3 solid innings Wednesday morning, allowing just one unearned run (which scored after Sawyer relieved him in the fifth) on four hits and a walk.
“We didn’t want that to sit with him during the All-Star break,” Johns said of Pike’s rough outing on Saturday. “That was a good team win.”
STONE CRABS 4, BLUE JAYS 2
HITTER OF THE GAME
Grant Kay, Stone Crabs: The first baseman drove in half of Charlotte’s runs Wednesday morning, going 2-for-4 with an RBI single and double.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Ian Gibaut, Stone Crabs: The right-hander around a hit and two walks to pitch 2 1/3 scoreless innings for his first-career High-A save.
Sixth: Alec Sole made a diving play to turn an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded to keep Dunedin off the board in the top half of the frame, and the Stone Crabs added an insurance run on a Kay double in the bottom half.
THEY SAID IT
Third baseman Alec Sole: “It’s definitely nice to go into the break on a win, because when we come back we’ll be fired up. We still have three games (in the first half), so it will be good to go into those games with a good attitude.”