MOOSIC — In a season that has been a roller coaster, Mark Payton might just be hitting the apex.
Missing the start of the season with a knee injury and then a chunk of August with a pesky hip bruise, all of the dips might have been worth it for this big climb.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders outfielder provided it in Game 1 of the Governors’ Cup first round against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs Wednesday night at PNC Field. With Scranton/Wilkes-Barre facing what looked like certain extra innings, Payton stepped up to the plate with two outs and the bases empty. But that didn’t matter.
He watched a Tyler Gilbert breaking ball coast by him. Then, Payton destroyed the next pitch the IronPigs reliever threw — a cutter — and drove it into the Budweiser RailHouse seats in right field to deliver a 3-2 victory.
“It’s been a wild ride this year,” Payton said. “We’re just happy we won Game 1 tonight, get some momentum into Game 2 and try to win as many home games as we can.
With one swing of the bat, Payton was able to erase a troubling inning for RailRiders reliever Justus Sheffield.
The talented southpaw gave up two runs, but only one was earned in the frame, on four hits. He only struck out one batter and it was to lead off the inning. After that, five straight IronPigs reached base. And with Gio Urshela, a third baseman by trade, playing shortstop, a couple of ground balls hit his way could have been fielded better.
Urshela made one error in the inning, which started with an impressive back-handed stop on an Andrew Knapp grounder in the gap. But he decided to throw to Ryan McBroom over at first base for the third out of the inning and airmailed the throw. The first of two runs scored on the play.
“I don’t think he located very well,” RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell said of Sheffield. “From what we were talking, I think his pitches were too out over the plate some times.
“(Urshela) has good hands. To make a backhand like that, I can’t fault him. It’s just that he’s a better third baseman than he is shortstop, but he’s saving us at short just because of everything.”
The RailRiders bullpen was able to recover from the two-run six inning, shutting the IronPigs bats down the rest of the way.
Raynel Espinal was dominant in the seventh and eighth innings, striking out four batters while only allowing two baserunners, and Joe Harvey came on in the ninth to pick up the win. Brady Lail also pitched an impressive fourth and fifth inning after RailRiders starting pitcher Erik Swanson was pulled early due to a groin tightness.
Swanson said after the game that the early exit was a precautionary measure.
“Poor Swanny. He tried to gut through it and couldn’t get through it,” Mitchell said. “The bullpen did a really good job.”
The path the RailRiders took Wednesday was similar to the one they used just to get to the playoffs — a 6-2 record down the stretch and a Pawtucket outfielder losing the ball in the sky to turn a simple fly out into a bases-clearing, go-ahead triple to clinch the wild card. This Game 1 win had its own twists and turns.
The RailRiders were able to take a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning on a left-field single by Urshela that crossed up Lehigh Valley left fielder Danny Ortiz and rolled to the wall, allowing Francisco Diaz to score from first base.
Diaz would have likely stopped at second on the play if Ortiz hadn’t struggled fielding the ball, and Mike Ford struck out to end the frame in the next at-bat.
“We have good group of dudes here,” Payton said. “The guys that just want to win. They’re guys that obviously aren’t on any top prospect lists or anything, just guys that want to go out there compete, put together good at-bats, try to win games. And we’re having fun doing that.”
GOVERNORS’ CUP PLAYOFFS
GAME 1 (RailRiders lead 1-0)
RailRiders 3, IronPigs 0
E: Ortiz (1), Urshela (1); PB: Knapp (1); DP: IronPigs (1), RailRiders 0; LOB: IronPigs 8, RailRiders 9; 2B: Urshela (1); HR: Payton (1); SAC: Cowgill, Caldwell.
Lehigh Valley`000`002`000 — 2
RailRiders`001`010`001 — 3
De Los Santos`6`7`2`1`1`6
WP: De Los Santos.
IBB: Zehner (by Gilbert).
Umpires: John Bacon, HP; Brennan Miller, 1B; Adam Beck, 2B; Ryan Clark, 3B.
Time: 2:59; Attendance: 1,491.
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle