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Orleans' Shay Whitcomb hit a high bouncing ball that trickled down the third base line. Third baseman Paxton Wallace (Wichita State) and pitcher Riley Boyd (Western Kentucky) waited for it to roll down the line, foul.
It never did.
The ball curled back into fair territory, settling down for infield single, the second of the inning. For the first time all night, the Firebirds offense had mustered multiple base runners in the same frame.
Eight batters and three runs later, the Firebirds put together an inning that propelled them to their third straight victory, while Chatham lost its fifth straight. Down the road in Harwich, the Mariners booked their playoff spot and continue to play their best baseball of the season. And in Orleans, the Firebirds shutout Chatham, 4-0, and pulled even with the Anglers at the top of the East Division standings with just two games to play.
“It’s part of an ugly roll,” manager Tom Holliday said. “When we were winning, we were getting those rolls, those breaks, those bloop singles. We’re making lots of mistakes and right now, because you’re losing, they look bigger. You have to play a nine inning game and stop it.”
Everyone in the East Division — especially Orleans and Harwich — appear to be trending upward. But the Anglers haven’t found a win, losing five straight since they won eight of nine to secure their position in the playoffs.
After grabbing a 5-0 lead in three innings against the Whitecaps in the day game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, the Anglers put up 11 consecutive zeros on the scoreboard. The Anglers knew Orleans starter Jared Shuster’s is a Cape League All-Star who had a 1.95 ERA entering Tuesday. They couldn’t hit him.
“He was really commanding his offspeed early,” Hueston Morrill (Oklahoma State) said. “He was getting guys out in front of his changeup. He didn’t have an overpowering fastball.”
Despite Holliday changing his cleats back to his red ones that he says are lucky, and loading up the lineup with right-handed hitters, they couldn’t get to Shuster. Before the game, Holliday wrote two adjectives under each of his hitters that describe them. He said he’s trying to find a way to spark life into an offense that now has 21 hits in its last five games.
“All I want them to do is be who they were when they came,” Holliday said. “Somebody said you can play here, come out and play your game, don’t try to step out and be somebody you’re not.”
In the first four innings, Chatham’s offense had few good chances to plate runners. While Wallace notched a single, he was quickly deleted on a double play ball two batters later. The A’s got another runner on in the third after a Kaden Polcovich (Oklahoma State) single, but yet again, they couldn’t string multiple hits together in the same frame.
Chatham starter Riley Boyd (Western Kentucky) pitched around the Firebirds for the first three innings, but ran into trouble in the fourth after two singles, both of which didn’t leave the infield. When a ball did leave the infield and drop down for a base hit, Orleans had a two-run lead. The Firebirds added a third on a base hit on the next pitch, and with Shuster still rolling on the mound, Chatham only once brought the tying run to the plate.
“I liked everything about him tonight, he was really good,” Holliday said of Boyd. “He was what I was told and that’s good because sometimes guys get up here and get a little tight.”
Chatham’s best opportunity to score came in the bottom of the fifth, the only time the A’s had multiple runners on at the same time. Charlie Welch (St. John’s River State College) picked up his third hit of the day in two games, and Kendrick Calilao (Florida) earned a walk to put two on with none out. The next two hitters couldn’t advance them beyond second, until Tyler Doanes (West Virginia) flared a single to right field.
Orleans’ right fielder Zach Britton scooped the ball and fired home. Firebirds catcher Rob Emery fielded the ball, took two steps to his left and tagged Welch. Even though Welch appeared to get under the tag, the umpire ruled him out. The first run was inches away, but it never came.
Chatham had been flirting with giving away sole possession of first place the entire week. After five straight losses, it's gone.
“We’re not playing well at all, it comes off as we’re tired,” Polcovich said. “We need to dig deeper, we need to play together.”