James Pugliese had pitched a grand total of one inning in Myrtle Beach’s first six playoff games.
The result: a hit, a walk and an unearned run on an error in the 12th inning that saddled Pugliese with the loss to Lynchburg on Saturday in the opening game of the best-of-five Mills Cup Championship Series.
Pugliese saw to it Wednesday night that it would be the last loss of the Pelicans’ season.
He pitched 4 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just one hit with seven strikeouts in relief of starter Preston Morrison, and got the win that gave Myrtle Beach its second consecutive Carolina League championship.
The Pelicans defeated Lynchburg 5-3 at Calvin Falwell Field at Lynchburg City Stadium to win the Mills Cup series three games to one.
“The bullpen was phenomenal, and Pugliese was amazingly good tonight,” Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey said. “Morrison struggled but luckily found a way to get through three [innings], then Pug basically dominated the game.”
In its third consecutive Mills Cup series appearance, Myrtle Beach became the first team to win outright back-to-back league championships since Winston-Salem in 1985-86.
“You go to spring training in February or March … and how rewarding is it that all of them are getting rewarded with a ring,” Bailey said. “Some guys will never make the big leagues, some guys unfortunately on this club are going to get released. So at least they know they finished with something on a high note.”
Long relief is far from the sexiest part of baseball, but it wins games, and the Pelicans bullpen was largely responsible for both Wednesday’s win and its overall playoff success.
The bullpen allowed just a hit and a walk in six shutout innings Wednesday, and in Myrtle Beach’s seven playoff games, it allowed just two earned runs in 31 1/3 innings for a 0.57 ERA. “It’s a good pen,” Lynchburg manager Mark Budzinski said. “Good starting pitching, a good pen and timely hitting is hard to beat.”
Pugliese, 24, of Trenton, N.J., and Mercer County Community College, changed the momentum of Wednesday’s game.
He entered with the Pelicans trailing 3-2 after starter Preston Morrison had a shaky outing, allowing seven hits and three runs in the first three innings.
Pugliese retired the first 13 batters he faced with seven strikeouts, including six straight and the side in order in the fifth inning on just 10 pitches.
He had been a starter in his final seven appearances in the regular season over the past couple months.
“I had a lot of days rest so my arm felt pretty good tonight,” Pugliese said. “My main mentality was just go and throw strikes and keep the ball down, which I did. My changeup was working pretty well, so when they did hit it was just a ground ball or flyout. They were out in front for most of the pitches.”
With Pugliese shutting down the Hillcats, the Cleveland Indians Advanced Class A affiliate, Myrtle Beach scored three runs in the top of the seventh inning to take a 5-3 lead.
The Pelicans loaded the bases with no outs on a walk by Charcer Burks, single by Donnie Dewees and infield single by David Bote. Burks scored the tying run on a wild pitch before Eloy Jimenez struck out. A line-drive single to center field by Bryant Flete plated Dewees with the go-ahead run, and Bote scored on a Jeffrey Baez grounder to third after the throw from third baseman Yonathan Mendoza sailed high. “We took advantage of Lynchburg’s mistakes,” Bailey said.
Flete, a Venezuela native who batted .214 in the playoffs, took a step up in the box during pitcher Matt Whitehouse’s windup believing a breaking ball was coming on an 0-2 count, and got one. “I think the breaking ball is coming,” Flete said. “I was prepared and my focus was to hit the ball.”
Pugliese was pulled in favor of lefty Tommy Thorpe with one out in the eighth after allowing his only hit – a double on a blooper that deflected off the glove of shortstop Andrew Ely in shallow left field.
Thorpe struck out Anthony Santander, a switch-hitter who moved to the right side of the plate for the at-bat, and got Bobby Bradley to pop out to third baseman Jesse Hodges to end the inning.
Pelicans closer Ryan McNeil walked Dorssys Paulino on four pitches leading off the bottom of the ninth, but enticed a groundout and struck out the final two batters to end the game, series and season.
“It got a little uneasy when you walk the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning like we did, but it ended up working out,” Bailey said.
It was more uneasy for the Pelicans early, when Lynchburg loaded the bases in the bottom of the first inning with no outs. But it plated just one run.
Morrison, who had a 1.77 ERA in six starts late in the season for the Pelicans but was hit hard Wednesday and in his playoff opener against Salem, gave up three straight hits to start the first. Tyler Krieger singled, Francisco Mejia doubled and Yu-Cheng Chang singled to produce a run. Santander was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Bradley struck out swinging and Paulino grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Preston pitched a gutsy performance tonight. He didn’t have his best stuff but he kept his stuff under control and limited the damage. So he really kept us in the ballgame and it really got us fired up. Even though he didn’t have his best stuff he gutted it out.
Playoffs MVP David Bote on starting pitcher Preston Morrison
Myrtle Beach took a lead in the third despite recording just one hit. Burks walked and took second on a groundout. Bote was intentionally walked and Eloy Jimenez, who was playing in just his third game with the Pelicans and on Tuesday was named Baseball America’s Low Class A Player of the Year, lined an RBI single to center field.
A two-out error on shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang allowed Bote to score and the Pelicans left runners on second and third on a groundout by Andrew Ely.
Lynchburg regained the lead on a two-run homer by the switch-hitting Mejia in the third, scoring Krieger, who had singled. Chang and Santander followed with singles and Bradley sacrificed them over with a bunt. Morrison avoided further damage by striking out Paulino and enticing a groundout by Connor Marabell to end the inning and end his outing.
“I knew when we had second and third there with one out [in the third] and we didn’t punch it in it would come back to haunt us,” Budzinski said. “Really the big part of the series for us was the inability with runners in scoring position, especially with less than two outs, to get guys in. We had a lot of strikeouts in those situations. Vice versa, the Pelicans, basically every time they got into that situation they put balls in play and put pressure on us, so they deserved it. They outplayed us.”
The top four batters in Lynchburg’s order – Krieger, Mejia, Chang and Santander – all reached base in their first two plate appearances against Morrision with five singles, a double, home run and hit-by-pitch. The bottom five in the order were 0-for-9 with a sacrifice in their first two at-bats.
Bote went 2-for-4 with a walk and scored two runs, and was named MVP of the Carolina League playoffs.
He batted .577 in seven playoff games, going 15-for-26 with nine RBI and adding five walks and a hit-by-pitch to reach base 21 times in the seven games for an average of three times per game. Bote finished the season with a 34-game on-base streak.
“It’s just keeping the grind going and taking it one pitch at a time, not taking any pitches off.” Bote said. “To come out champions of the Carolina League is something incredible. First and foremost the team championship is the greatest thing.”