Myrtle Beach hit few balls hard, didn’t receive an RBI from a starter, and had a starting pitcher who was limited to five innings Friday night at Lewis Gale Field.
But this time of the year, wins are all that matter.
The Pelicans managed to eke out a 2-1 win over the Salem Red Sox in the deciding third game of the Carolina League’s Southern Division Championship Series to advance to their third straight Mills Cup Championship Series.
“Our team thinks that they can win, they believe they’re going to win, and when you do that you find ways to make plays. Everything seemed to go our way,” said a beer- and champagne-drenched Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey following the team’s on-field celebration. “I guess this is almost like we’ve got a junior championship, now we’re going for the big daddy championship tomorrow.”
There is no rest for the victors, who open the best-of-five final series against Lynchburg at 6 p.m. Saturday at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark. Myrtle Beach has the first two games at home this weekend and travels for the final games beginning Tuesday in search of its second consecutive Carolina League title.
“In my fifth year now playing I’ve never been playing for a championship. This is an awesome feeling,” said Pelicans closer Ryan McNeil, who recorded Myrtle Beach’s final five outs. “It’s something I’m not used to but I’m really excited and looking forward to it.”
Myrtle Beach trailed 1-0 through six innings before getting a broken-bat pinch-hit RBI single by Daniel Spingola with two outs in the seventh and scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth on a wild pitch.
“We didn’t do anything offensively,” Bailey said. “We scratched, and Spingola did a great job. I’m glad he broke his bat because if he hadn’t the ball would have flown too far and the [left fielder] would have caught it. … [Salem] is probably over there wondering how they lost this series.”
The Pelicans were shut down by Salem left-handed starter Matt Kent, who allowed just three hits and hit a batter through the first six innings. He allowed a one-out infield single to Jeffrey Baez in the seventh and recorded the second out before being lifted after 95 pitches.
Spingola, a left-handed hitter who batted .231 in 49 games during the regular season, pinch-hit for catcher Erick Castillo against righty Yankory Pimentel. He dropped a full-count looper off the hands in front of a diving Jayce Ray in left field to plate Baez.
“I wasn’t in the starting lineup so I took it upon myself to be ready in the late innings,” said Spingola, who struck out on a nine-pitch at-bat as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Thursday’s loss. “It’s definitely nice to be given the opportunity, knowing coach trusts me to put me in that situation. I delivered that time. The night before I didn’t so it was nice to kind of go redeem myself a little bit there.”
The Pelicans loaded the bases with one out in the top of the eighth inning on a line-drive single by Donnie Dewees, walk by David Bote and infield single on a chopper by Yasiel Balaguert, the Pelicans’ RBI leader who then exited the game with an apparent leg injury.
Salem reliever Simon Mercedes enticed a pop out by Ian Rice before throwing a wild pitch that allowed Dewees to score the go-ahead run.
The Pelicans again loaded the bases with one out but couldn’t push another run across. It appeared they might regret it when Rafael Devers doubled to lead off the bottom of the eighth and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt. But following a walk to Ray by Tommy Nance, McNeil was summoned and got a fly out and ground out to end the inning, then retired the side in order in the ninth inning for his 23rd save in 25 chances this year.
“I’ve been given the opportunity already this year to come into situations like that and it really prepared me for a playoff situation,” McNeil said. “Good defense behind me really saved me. That’s the biggest thing, just coming in and throwing strikes and trusting your defense to get out of jams like that.”
Pelicans starter Duane Underwood was limited to five innings because it was just his fifth start since coming off the disabled list, and gave the Pelicans a strong outing. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning when Joseph Monge topped a pitch and the ball trickled 40 feet down the third-base line.
Salem got somewhat lucky to score the game’s first run in the fifth, then was unlucky not to score more.
Underwood gave up consecutive line-drive singles to center by Ray and Jose Sermo leading off the fifth to place runners on first and third. A 30-foot trickler on a full swing down the third-base line by Jordan Procyshen plated Ray, and following a sacrifice bunt that moved runners to second and third, yet another trickler – this time down the first base line – by Jeremy Rivera loaded the bases with one out.
Underwood got out of the inning when Monge attempted to lean away from a 1-2 inside fastball but the ball hit the knob of his bat for a comebacker to Underwood, who started a home-to-first double play.
“The ball hit the knob and came right back to the mound, which is unbelievable for us for a 1-2-3 double play,” Bailey said.
Tommy Thorpe, the only left-hander in the Pelicans bullpen, relieved Underwood in the sixth and was pulled with two runners on and one out in the seventh, and Tommy Nance got a ground out and fly out to end the inning and earn the win before exiting in the eighth.
As fortunate as Myrtle Beach was to win the Southern Division series, Lynchburg was even more fortunate to win the Northern Division series over Potomac.
The Hillcats, who won both the first- and second-half division titles, were down to their last out of the season in the 13th inning of the second game and hit a popup into right field. Three Potomac players converged and collided, allowing the ball to drop and the tying run to score, and Lynchburg won in the 14th inning and closed the series with a 3-1 win Friday.