Sep 172010
 

The action came early, but the suspense lasted all night long as the Potomac Nationals edged the Winston-Salem Dash 2-1 to win the 2010 Carolina League Championship.

Facing the most potent lineup in the Carolina League, nobody (*ahem*) thought that a pitcher’s duel could be possible in this series, much less the deciding game. But baseball is a game that both defies and fulfills expectations in ways that can be sensed, but never predicted.

Francisco Soriano led off the bottom of the first with a walk, took second on a grounder to third, took third on a grounder to second. Up came Tyler Moore, who drove in Soriano with Texas-Leaguer to left field for the first run of the game. Two innings later, Soriano would triple down the right field line and score on a tapper to first off the bat of Bill Rhinehart for a 2-0 lead that Potomac would build on methodically as the night would progress.

They did not.

There were baserunners in every single inning from the 4th to the 8th, most notably a one-out bomb by Tyler Moore to deep right-center, but against the most potent lineup in the Carolina League (or at least the most potent that they could face) the 2-0 lead seemed far too close for comfort.

Sure enough, Winston-Salem answered the second Potomac run in inglorious fashion, a tapper back to the mound that starter (and winner) Marcos Frias bounced off the shoulder of Jon Gilmore for a two-base error. Cleanup hitter Seth Loman cashed in the opportunity with a sharp single to left that cut the deficit to 2-1 — what you know to be final score, but the crowd of nearly 2,000 did not.

Frias would pitch five innings total, allowing the lone, unearned Winston-Salem run, on four hits and no walks, while striking out four. Joe Testa would follow him with a 2⅔ innings of hitless and scoreless relief, walking one and striking out two. Zach Dials would follow for a four-out save, finishing the 2010 postseason with his second save and a 1.29 ERA.

The win secured Potomac its second championship in three seasons, but one that was far more satisfying to see than the previous because it was so unforeseen and so unlikely, given the offensive struggles in the first half and the tendency of the front office to demote rather than promote to replenish the roster.

And for a few, there’s the hope of more… heading to Harrisburg next season, and perhaps Syracuse the year after. But for some, this is the pinnacle of their professional baseball career, if not the end of it in affiliated baseball. As they did in 2008, some will snort and sniff about the advanced age of this team and dismiss their success. And those folks… well, you can just kiss my ass because damn, it was fun to watch.

Sep 172010
 

The error that started the sixth drew a collective groan from the hundreds that braved the wet weather in Woodbridge. Though the Potomac nine were ahead 3-2, these diehards knew that the Dash can bang even when they start with a whimper. Sure enough, a sharp single to left and perfectly placed bunt loaded the bases with nobody out.

Veteran pitcher Jimmy Barthmaier had been struggling with his control, walking three in the previous five innings when he had walked just seven in nine regular-season appearances. Carlos Martinez started throwing in the bullpen and the fans were calling for Cathcart to put him in.

A popup to short got the first out, but the fans still wanted Carlos. Drew Garcia, who had singled twice in the previous two at-bats, got caught looking on an inside fastball. With the long, lean Dominican standing in the bullpen, hands on his hips, Barthmaier induced a popup to shallow right field. In the fourth, that flare found grass, but this time it landed in second-baseman Francisco Soriano’s glove for the third out. Barthmaier strode off the mound in triumph.

The energy carried into the bottom of the sixth, where Potomac rallied for three runs on two singles, two sacrifices, two wild pitches, and two stolen bases to take a 6-2 lead. It would prove to be enough, as the P-Nats would go on to win by a 10-2 count and take the series lead at 2-1, one win away from their second Mills Cup in three seasons.

Solo home runs by Bill Rhinehart and Jose Lozada in the first and second innings respectively gave the P-Nats an early 2-0 lead. The rain, light but steady, was enough to make folks worry if these longballs would eventually count. It had delayed the game 27 minutes and was quite visible on any ball skipping on the grass, an eight-inch plume of water spinning above it.

Rhinehart would lead all hitters with three RBIs on his homer and an eighth-inning double. Lozada would score three times while walking twice and Sean Rooney was the third P-Nat to collect multiple hits, including a fourth-inning triple to the wall in right-center that sent in Tyler Moore, who had been hit by pitches twice, to give the P-Nats the 3-2 lead.

Marcos Frias takes the hill tonight with the hopes of clinching his second playoff series in as many starts, opposed by Nathan Jones for the Winston-Salem Dash. Frias is 2-0 with a 1.53 ERA in his last three starts (17⅔ IP, 15H, 4BB, 14K) while Jones is 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA (16⅔ IP, 11H, 9BB, 11K) over the same stretch.

Sep 112010
 

Four big innings on offense and four innings of solid bullpen work were the, um, keys to beating Frederick as Potomac would go on to 10-3 win and return to Carolina League’s Mills Cup championship for the second time in three seasons.

Seven batters would combine for 11 hits, led by Chris Curran who tripled and singled twice for a 3-for-4 night, finishing the series at 7-for-12. Bill Rhinehart would drive in three for the second straight night, his six RBIs leading the team in the series. Potomac would score twice in the second, twice in the third, and three times in the fourth to build a 7-1 lead through four innings.

Marcos Frias would go five-plus innings to log the win, charged with three runs on six hits and two walks while striking out three. The first man out of the bullpen, Carlos Martinez, was greeted with a single to load the bases with no outs in the sixth, and then gave up a double, but Chris Curran and Jose Lozada combined to gun out the last runner by a healthy margin to get the first out. Martinez struck out the next batter and got a tapper back to the mound to end the inning, the lead cut to 7-3.

Potomac’s response would come in the bottom of the seventh, plating three runs on two hits and a groundout and took advantage of three walks — the seventh, eighth and ninth that the Keys would issue — to stretch the lead to 10-3.

Zach Dials and Rob Wort would follow Martinez, each tossing a scoreless inning to seal the deal. For the series, the bullpen would pitch 15⅔ innings, allow four runs, one earned, on 18 hits and three walks, and strike out 11.

As expected, the P-Nats’ opponent will be the Winston-Salem Dash. The double-half winner swept the Kinston Indians in the other half of the playoff bracket and will host Potomac for Games 1 and 2 on Monday and Tuesday. The series finishes at Potomac, resuming for Game 3 on Thursday, with Games 4 and 5 (if necessary) slated for Friday and Saturday.

Sep 102010
 

Back-to-back jacks in the top of the 7th inning by Bill Rhinehart and Tyler Moore broke open a 3-0 game as the Potomac Nationals took a 2-1 series lead with a 7-1 win over Frederick on Friday night.

Entering the game, Rhinehart had been hitting just .100 (1-for-10) in the series; Moore just .250 (2-for-8) but both would break out at home to collect multiple hits and fuel the Potomac offense.

Pitching, however, would be the name of this game. Veteran Jimmy Barthmaier would go the first 5⅔ innings and give up just two hits and one walk while setting down seven Keys on strikes, mixing curves with changes and fastballs to keep the Frederick nine off base and off stride. He would allow just two hits and walk just one while striking out seven.

A.J. Morris would relieve Barthmaier in the sixth and go two innings before running out of gas and loading the bases in the eighth before turning it over to Pat McCoy, who exploited the impatience of Miguel Abreu for a groundout to third to end the innings, the lone Frederick run coming on a passed ball that was ruled a wild pitch.

McCoy set down the side in order in the ninth to nail down the 7-1 win and give Potomac a 2-1 series lead, with two chances to punch their ticket for a return trip to the Mills Cup Finals, which they last won in 2008.

Sep 052010
 

It’s odd that sometimes the games that are supposed to mean the least can end up being the best.

Last night, Potomac clinched a playoff spot. The night before, Kinston clinched by virtue of Potomac’s win over Salem. With playoff seeding largely predetermined, very little was at stake except for pride and professionalism.

But it was those two things that were on display in spades on Sunday afternoon in Woodbridge, as the Kinston Indians no-hit the Potomac Nationals for a 10-inning 1-0 win.

Marty Popham, Chris Jones, and Cory Burns combined on the no-no, with Popham tossing the first seven innings, Jones pitching the eighth and ninth, and Burns closing out the tenth for his league-leading 30th save.

Zach Dials was the loser, allowing one run over two innings with a single, sacrifice, and another single in plating the Kinston run.

Potomac’s sole scoring threat came in the seventh, as Francisco Soriano drew a walk to end the perfect game, then took second on a wild pitch. Nick Moresi grounded to second to push Soriano to third with one out. Jamar Walton would line out to a drawn-in first baseman for out number two. Derek Norris would draw the second walk of the inning and Sean Rooney would be the second groundout to second for the third and final out.

The loss would drop Potomac to 69-69 overall on the season and shave the margin over Wilmington to 1½ games. The divisional round of the Carolina League playoffs is slated to begin on Wednesday in Frederick.

Sep 052010
 

For the second time in three seasons, the Potomac Nationals are playoff-bound. They clinched with a 2-0 shutout of the Kinston Indians in the opening game of a doubleheader, the second shutout in as many games.

Perhaps more satisfying is that it came against Kinston ace Joe Gardner, who had beaten the P-Nat nine that past two times they had faced him. Or maybe that Trevor Holder kept the ball down and in the yard for six scoreless innings, just the second time a zero had appeared in the run column of his pitching line all season long.

Early on, it looked like it might be a rout. Derek Norris and Bill Rhinehart drew back-to-back walks with one out to bring up Tyler Moore, who scorched a grounder that third-baseman Kyle Bellows couldn’t handle and left-fielder Donnie Webb nearly misplayed (yes, it was hit that hard) for an early 1-0 lead. Webb recovered in more than enough time to throw out Rhinehart attempting to go from first to third.

After another walk, this one to Sean Rooney, Gardner got Jerome Walton to ground out to end the threat. It would be the first of 13 batters in a row he would retire.

Indian catcher Chun Chen would smack a double to left field to lead off the second and the feeling of a rout came back, but in the opposite direction. But then a funny thing happened: Holder struck out the side, en route to retiring nine straight.

After a brief threat in the fifth, which Holder escaped with a nicely turned 5-4-3 double play, Potomac would get an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth, as Francisco Soriano led off with a walk, stole second, and took third on an error before Norris drove him in with a single to left.

Holder would finish with three hits allowed and six strikeouts against no runs and no walks to give way to Pat McCoy, who retired the Indians 1-2-3 for save no. 6, clinching the second-half Carolina League North Division title for Potomac.

GAME TWO
With the playoff bid secured, Rhinehart, Norris and Moore were given the rest of night off and swingman Carlos Martinez got the nod to start. The veteran swingman would put in four innings of work, leaving with a 1-1 tie before giving way to Justin Phillabaum.

For the 15th time in 29 appearances, Phillabaum was scored upon, coughing up three runs in the fifth with a bases-clearing, two-out triple by Abner Abreu. Inexplicably, Phillabaum was asked to throw again in the sixth. Predictably, the Indians torched him for another three runs, a no-doubt-about-it blast to right by Bo Greenwell.

Down 7-1 in the sixth, the P-Nats showed some heart to rally for three runs in the sixth and one more in the seventh, but the damage had been done as the Potomac would fall in the nightcap by a count of 7-5.

Aug 252010
 

Down 4-0 after 4½ innings, things were looking dismal for the Potomac Nationals. It was the sixth game of a six-game homestand that had begun with an eighth-inning meltdown against playoff-bound Winston-Salem and was threatening to send Potomac on the road down 1½ games, relying on other teams for help in their quest to make the postseason.

Like most rallies that begin in the lower half of the lineup, the big inning started slowly with a one-out walk. Then a hit batsmen. Then an error. Suddenly the bases were loaded and the top of the order was coming to the plate.

Leadoff hitter Francisco Soriano fell behind 0-2 after the first two pitches, but then worked the count full, and took the walk to send in the first run. Derek Norris would follow with a sky-high popup, and it looked for just a brief instant that yet another rally would fall short. Wilmington’s manager nevertheless made the call to the bullpen for some help to face Bill Rhinehart.

“Dolla” had doubled to left-center in the first inning, the first of just two hits up to that point. Hit no. 3 went just a little farther: A towering shot just to the right of the scoreboard for a grand slam that gave Potomac a 5-4 lead.

Marcos Frias would come on in relief of Jimmy Barthmaier in the very next inning (the sixth) and cough up the tying run on, of all things, a two-out wild pitch — the third that had eluded the grasp of catcher Derek Norris.

Norris would get his chance for redemption — be it the bases-loaded popup or the wild pitches — in the bottom of the 7th, blasting a ball just a few feet short of Rhinehart’s fifth-inning blast for a two-out double that put Potomac ahead for good at 6-5.

Both teams first man out of the bullpen would make a mistake then settle down for two-plus innings, but Wilmington’s second man out was not so lucky: surrendering an insurance run on a walk and two singles to give Potomac a 7-5 lead in the bottom of the eighth.

A.J. Morris came on in the ninth to pitch a scoreless inning to earn his first professional save and ice the win, which put Potomac back in first place by ½ game and a one-game lead in the loss column. Tomorrow is the teams first scheduled off day since the August 1, and it will be badly needed to prepare for a three-game road series against Frederick this weekend, then a five-game series in Salem next Tuesday through Friday.

Aug 252010
 

Some folks will say that Wilmington’s Will Smith dominated the P-Nats last night, but the more careful observer will tell you: This is what happens when you swing at pitcher’s pitches.

For eight innings, Potomac flailed at the Blue Rock southpaw, consistently putting themselves behind 0-2 and 1-2. For 5⅔ innings, Smith retired every batter he had faced before Nick Moresi singled up the middle to break up the perfect game.

The lanky centerfielder would be the lone exception as batter after batter refused to wait him out — even Derek Norris — as Smith racked up 12 strikeouts over eight innings against no walks.

Meanwhile, Trevor Holder’s troubles keeping the ball in the yard continued, as he surrendered two home runs to Wilmington, accounting for three of the four Wilmington runs. Holder has allowed five home runs in 45 innings for Potomac, but four have come in his last three starts.

But with such abysmal offense, it’s a nitpick. Potomac would get two runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Rock bullpen as a walk, a Moresi double, and a Norris two-out double would cut the Wilmington lead in half before Tyler Moore would become the 13th and final strikeout on the night fly out to center to end the game.

The loss drops Potomac into second place, a ½ game behind Wilmington, and into a tie in the loss column. The latter matters because Wilmington will play just 68 games in the 2nd half, making it possible for the Blue Rocks to make the playoffs as a percentage-points winner.

Jimmy Barthmaier looks to stop the three-game slide for Potomac against Wilmington’s Timothy Melville, who is 0-1 with a 4.21 ERA in two starts against Potomac this season.

Aug 242010
 

The World Cup came to Woodbridge on Monday Night, as the Wilmington Blue Rocks scored twice in the final minute ninth to tie it at 3-3 and then broke through for three more in extra time innings for a 6-3 win over the Potomac Nationals.

The 14-inning game took three hours and 51 minutes to play, much of it in a light rain, and featured just 25 baserunners over the 28 frames. Wilmington’s Ernesto Mejia was one-man wrecking crew for the Blue Rocks, driving in five of the six runs on a single, triple, and home run, including the two game-tying runs in the ninth and the first two go-ahead runs in the 14th.

Former Washington Nationals draftee Aaron Crow did not make his scheduled start, as he reportedly claimed to have “a strained oblique muscle in his back,” which is odd because the obliques are, in fact, located in the abdomen.

Nevertheless, the weather was fit for a duck, the game started on time in a light rain and the game quickly turned into a pitcher’s duel. Mejia got the Blue Rocks on the board first with a towering shot off the scoreboard in the second, Potomac responded one inning later with back-to-back doubles by Nick Moresi and and Francisco Soriano that would tie the game, while Derek Norris would break an 0-for-7 skid with an RBI single to give Potomac the lead at 2-1.

Robby Jacobsen would put the P-Nats up by two in the fifth with a Little-League home run of a triple to center and a relay that went into the stands.

Starter Danny Rosenbaum, who despite his final line, labored with his control but got the key groundballs when they were needed to go six innings with the one run allowed, one walk and four strikeouts. Rob Wort would hold the lead with two scoreless innings to deliver the ball to Justin Phillabaum in the ninth.

It took just four batters for the lead to evaporate as a single, hit batsmen, and a walk loaded the bases for Mejia, who promptly singled to left to tie the game at 3-3. Pat McCoy would come on in relief and limit the damage, but despite having the 3-4-5 hitters up in the bottom of the ninth, Potomac would go down 1-2-3.

McCoy would pitch the 10th and 11th innings, giving way to Pat Lehman who delivered two scoreless innings before the Blue Rocks would rally for three in the 14th on a double, sacrifice, and a Mejia triple to take the lead. Mejia would later come around on a wild pitch.

Potomac would stage a two-out rally in the bottom of the 14th as Bill Rhinehart and Sean Rooney both singled, but Jose Lozada couldn’t get the clutch hit, as the P-Nats went down in defeat by the final count of 6-3.

With the loss, Potomac’s lead falls to just a ½ game (one in the loss column) as the two teams meet for game two of three-game series tonight (weather permitting). Trevor Holder and Will Smith are the announced starters.

Aug 222010
 

Baseball is a game of failure, lots of it, actually. It’s also a game that offers a chance at redemption. It might come on the next play, the next inning, or the next night, but it almost always comes.

On Friday night, Derek Norris was asked to advance the tying run to third via the bunt with no outs in the ninth inning, and he popped it up halfway down the first base line. Regardless of whether it was a poor decision to ask him do it (and it was), the sting of failure still hurts because the cat-calling casual fans don’t understand.

Fast-forward to Saturday night, and in his next at-bat, Norris comes up with one on and one out, the P-Nats down 2-0. With one swing of the bat, Friday night was forgotten as the game was tied with one swing of the bat.

Tyler Moore would single, Sean Rooney would double him in, and the P-Nats would take the lead at 3-2 and never look back as both Norris and Moore had a night to remember, combining for seven hits, seven runs, and… wait for it… seven RBI as Potomac would pound Winston-Salem for a 9-2 victory.

Moore would homer twice to tie the franchise record at 28 and drive in five runs to eclipse the century mark in RBIs, the first player to do it since Troy Farnsworth in 2000 (113) and the sixth overall, according to the P-Nats website. He went 4-for-4 on the night, doubling, and homering twice after his first-inning single.

Norris would walk and double, scoring all four times he reached base, his on-base percentage raised to .426, second only to since-promoted Eric Hosmer of Wilmington in the Carolina League.

Starter Adrian Alaniz picked up his seventh win of the season, laboring through five innings against the league’s very best offense but would not give up another run after the first inning — a flat fastball that Dash cleanup hitter Seth Loman lined over the right-centerfield wall for both Winston-Salem runs — allowing six hits total, walking two, and striking out five.

The win combined with a loss by Wilmington extends the Potomac lead to 2½ games and three in the loss column. The Blue Rocks come to town on Monday for the final three games between these two teams. The recently signed IFA and former Cuban National team pitcher Yuniesky Maya is the announced starter for today’s game, opposed by Winston-Salem’s Terry Doyle, who has pitched twice against the P-Nats at Winston-Salem, allowing three runs over 13 innings.