They finally arrived back to Civic Stadium an hour and a half before game time, giving them no time for pre-game hitting or fielding. To make things worse, the first-place Salem-Keiser Volcanoes were awaiting their arrival and were ready for the first meeting of the season between the two heavy- hitting teams.
Salem-Keiser, off to an 11-2 start, entered Sunday’s game on a six game winning streak, and have won nine of their last ten; including an 8-0 record in games that they score first. So, when they struck first on a deep sac fly to right field by Michael McBryde in the third inning, it seemed to spell doom for the Emeralds.
Matt Buschmann, who was 2-0 with a 3.48 ERA in 10.1 innings coming into tonight’s game, was making his second start of the season for the Emeralds and looked strong from the start by retiring the first six batters he faced in order. However, Buschmann was saddled with the loss after giving up five hits and one run on the sac fly in the final 2.1 innings he pitched.
His counterpart for the Volcanoes, Adam Cowart, has been off to a hot start. In his two appearances this season, he has earned a 2-0 record by giving up no earned runs on only two hits and eight strikeouts in 11 innings. In five innings tonight, he earned his third win by shutting out the Emeralds, giving up only two hits. The Volcanoes pitching staff induced 18 ground balls that led to outs, including four double plays in the game. They allowed just seven hits to the Emerald offense.
Wade LeBlanc, the Padres’ 2nd round pick of this year’s draft out of University of Alabama, made his first appearance for the home crowd when he entered the game in the sixth. LeBlanc, who picked up the sole win for the Ems in Vancouver, struggled, giving up four runs on four hits in only 1.1 innings. The big blow came off the bat of pinch hitter Chris Todd in the sixth, when he hit a bases-loaded double over the head of left fielder Chad Huffman to clear the bases.
Down by five in the seventh, third basemen David Freese started a rally by ripping a one out single into left. Craig Cooper was then hit in the head. With runners on first and second, Huffman singled up the middle scoring Freese and giving the Ems their first run. Catcher Kody Valverde followed by hitting a 3-2 pitch that landed just inches fair down the left field line. The double scored both runners and knocked Volcano pitcher Kelvin Pichardo out of the game. However, Adam Paul came in and ended the Emerald threat by retiring shortstop Tom King and right fielder Garner Wetzel in order to end the inning and leave Valverde on third.
Second baseman Ray Stokes received a rousing applause from the home crowd for his defensive play throughout the game as he led off the eighth inning. He responded by lifting the first pitch into left for a leadoff single. After Epping flew out in his final at-bat of the game to end his hit streak at 11 games, Antonelli hit a hard shot past the Salem-Keiser third baseman, who was given a questionable error on the play. The home crowd’s hopes of another late inning rally were let down, though, as Stokes was thrown out trying to reach third on the play. With the momentum gone, Freese followed by grounding out to first to end the inning.
The Emeralds came into this July 2 showdown sitting at the bottom of the Northwest league standings with a record of 7-6, four games back of the Volcanoes, despite their excellent hitting. They were first place in the NWL in runs scored, walks, and tied with Salem-Keiser for the league lead in hits. They were second behind Salem-Keiser in batting average and homeruns.
The lack of winning is primarily due to the struggling pitching; which still leads the league in walks with 62 allowed and is sporting a team ERA of 4.55. Errors in the field have also been a problem. After tonight’s game, which the Emeralds lost 5-3, they have 24 errors in 14 games.
“We’ve had a pretty tough schedule to start out,” said Manager Doug Dascenzo. “We haven’t been on the field as much as we’d like to be for early work, but once it smoothes out we’ll get a chance to work on the field and we’ll get to work on that.”
The only two hits off Cowart were off the bat of Matt Antonelli, who after struggling to start the season by going five for his first 22, has found his groove and brought his average up to a solid.308.
“I was having good at bats, I just wasn’t getting hits,” said Antonelli, who leads the NWL with an on base streak of 13 games. Antonelli believed things were just not falling his way, and so he stayed patient. “I kept trying to stay focused and kept pushing on. I just wanted to keep improving and so far I’ve been getting better each day.”
Mike Epping was second in the league in hits (18) coming into tonight’s game, and was boasting a .360 average and an 11-game hit streak. The streak ended tonight, however, as Epping had no hits in three at-bats. He attempted to bunt his way on in the sixth, but was thrown out at first by the pitcher. His on-base streak did continue, now 12 games, when he was hit by Cowart to lead off the Ems half of the first.
Jon Kirby, who was with the club at the start of the season, was reacquired this week from the Fort Wayne Wizards and pitched 2.2 solid innings in relief tonight giving up only one hit. The Ems gave up only two walks on the night, one by Kirby and one by LeBlanc.
“The guys did a great job coming in today and doing what they did,” said Dascenzo after the game. “They’ve been doing that all year. Putting themselves in a position to win ball games and sooner or later they’re going to start stringing them up.”
The Emeralds host the Volcanoes for the second of this two-game set tomorrow at 6:35 pm.