The Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ 2016 season has come down to a winner-take-all game in the Carolina League’s Southern Division Championship Series.
Salem cooled off the red-hot Pelicans with a 5-1 win Thursday night at Lewis Gale Field in the second game of the series to force the deciding third game in Salem.
Myrtle Beach won the opening game at Pelicans Ballpark 8-1 Wednesday for its 13th win in 15 games.
“After you win the first one you want to win the second game, but to come to their ballpark – and both teams have played the best of any of the teams in the second half – it’s kind of hard to go in thinking you’re going to beat somebody two in a row,” Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey said. “Both teams have been playing too good lately.”
Myrtle Beach figured to have a good chance to clinch the series Thursday with Preston Morrison on the mound. He has had the lowest earned-run average in minor league baseball since June 11.
But Salem, which sported the Carolina League’s best regular-season record at 87-52, wasn’t ready for its offseason just yet, and it touched up Morrison for nine hits and five runs in 4 2/3 innings.
The Pelicans fell behind 2-0 as Morrison allowed six hits through three innings and allowed single runs in the second and third – his first runs allowed in the first three innings in seven Pelicans starts.
Jayce Ray hit his first home run of the season on a line drive to right field to lead off the second inning, and the Red Sox posted just one run in the third despite four consecutive hits because of a combination of poor base running and good Myrtle Beach defense.
With one out, Joseph Monge, Luis Basabe and Rafael Devers hit consecutive singles that plated Monge, but Basabe rounded second base too aggressively on Devers’ single and was thrown out by right fielder Jeffrey Baez. A Nick Longhi single did no damage, and a nice play on a grounder up the middle by second baseman Bryant Flete resulted in a force-out that ended the inning.
Myrtle Beach pulled within a run in the top of the fourth on an RBI single by David Bote that plated Charcer Burks, who had singled. But Salem got the run back in the bottom of the fourth on a leadoff Jose Sermo double, sacrifice bunt and wild pitch.
A two-run homer by Rafael Devers in the fifth pushed Salem’s advantage to 5-1 and led to Morrison’s exit following a walk two batters later.
The loss is Morrison’s first at the Advanced-A level. In his six previous starts since being called up to the Pelicans in late July, the former TCU ace had been 3-0 with a 1.77 ERA while featuring a fastball that hits 90 mph as well as a changeup, slider and sinker.
Morrison led all Chicago Cubs full-season pitchers with a 2.11 ERA this regular season, going 12-4 across two levels. He had defeated Salem twice over the past six weeks with a dominant 0.71 ERA against the Red Sox.
“Obviously Morrison didn’t pitch anywhere near the level he has given us the whole time he has been here this year,” Bailey said. “He just couldn’t get the ball down consistently and they took advantage, and you’ve got to commend their hitters.”
Obviously Morrison didn’t pitch anywhere near the level he has given us the whole time he has been here this year. He just couldn’t get the ball down consistently and they took advantage, and you’ve got to commend their hitters.
Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey
Salem lefthanded starter Trey Ball (8-6, 3.84 ERA), one of Boston’s top-20 prospects, allowed just one run on three hits and two walks with three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
“That was a big performance by Trey,” Salem manager Joe Oliver said. “You couldn’t have had a bigger stage for him right there to make a statement on a year. For him to come back and take an elimination game and show the confidence that he exuded today and execute the pitches, he stepped up huge for us.”
The Pelicans threatened in each of the final two innings against a pair of Salem relievers.
They had runners on first and third with two outs in the eighth inning and Yasiel Balaguert, who set a single-season Pelicans franchise record with 96 RBI, at the plate.
Balaguert hit a ground ball in the shortstop hole that was gloved by Jeremy Rivera, whose low throw was scooped by Longhi at first base just in time to record the third out.
The Pelicans loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth on a one-out walk by Baez and single by Ely, and a single by Flete with two outs following a nine-pitch strikeout of pinch-hitter Daniel Spingola.
Representing the tying run, Burks fell behind 0-2 before flying out in foul territory down the right field line on a 1-2 pitch to end the game.
“I commend our players because we fought back,” Bailey said. “That kind of game could have gotten away, and we got the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning, and the bullpen [Daniel] Lewis and [James] Norwood did an outstanding job putting up a bunch of zeros to give us a chance to get that tying run to the plate in the ninth.”
The Pelicans are trying to win back-to-back Carolina League championships after going 15 years between titles, and reach the Mills Cup Championship Series for the third consecutive season.
Duane Underwood, the No. 6 prospect in Chicago's organization according to MLB.com, will start his fifth game since coming off his second stint on the 2016 disabled list in August. He gave up one run in 4 2/3 innings in his only Pelicans appearance this season on Sept. 2, and can go five innings or up to 75 pitches, Bailey said.
“What those guys gave us tonight in the bullpen and what we did last night we’ve got plenty of bullpen, we’ve just got to get to the guys we like and have the lead,” Bailey said.
Former Texas A&M star Matt Kent (10-7, 3.69 ERA), another lefty, will try to keep Salem’s season alive.
Matt Kent’s got a big game for us tomorrow. We kind of laid it out where if we needed it, he was going to be the guy that would be able to pitch the toughest game that we have all season.
Salem manager Joe Oliver
Myrtle Beach will try to avoid being the fifth team in the past six years to take the first game of the Southern Division Championship Series and lose the series. Myrtle Beach has never swept a divisional playoff series in seven appearances.
“You want to win Game 2 and close it out early, but hey, tomorrow it’s mano a mano, winner takes all, all bets are off, so it will be fun to do,” said a cliché-happy Bote. “We’ll come out ready to play tomorrow and see what happens. We’ll have the same mentality.”
Friday’s winner will face the winner of the Northern Division series between Lynchburg and Potomac beginning Saturday at their home park. Lynchburg, which won both the first- and second-half Northern Division titles, avoided elimination Thursday with a 6-5 win in 14 innings.