MOOSIC — The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders hadn’t scored first in one of their games since Game 4 of their Governors’ Cup first-round matchup against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
In each of their first three Governors’ Cup Finals games against the Durham Bulls, the RailRiders were forced to play from behind. And in doing so, time and time again, they looked uncomfortable at the plate.
Until Friday night.
RailRiders shortstop Gio Urshela crushed a 1-1 delievery from Durham starting pitcher Zach Lee in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bullpen in the top of the first inning. From there, the offense settled in and scored four more times before the night was over, all thanks to Mike Ford, en route to a 5-2 series-extending win over the Bulls.
“The home run by Gio, I think, got us going. It made us relax some,” RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell said. “Once you relax, you’re going to play better. We talked a little bit before the game, I don’t think we were relaxed last night. I thought we were very uptight, we were very edge and you can’t play that way. So, I thought they did really — throughout the game, I don’t care if you struck out or not, at least they came up the next at-bat and they were battling and confident.”
While Urshela was reliable once again at the plate, collecting a pair of hits to boost his series batting average up to .333, Ford has finally found a groove at the plate.
After hitting his way into some hard-luck outs earlier in the Governors’ Cup Finals, the designated hitter came up with three big swings of the bat.
The first was a first-inning single that didn’t amount to anything as he was stranded at second base. But with Shane Robinson standing on third base after an Urshela force out with one out in the third, Ford sent a drive to Rob Refsnyder in right field, allowing the RailRiders center fielder to score from third base. The sacrifice fly gave the RailRider a crucial 2-0 lead.
Then Ford put Durham away for good with his second home run of the series, a three-run blast in the fifth inning.
“Just for me personally, I’m contributing finally, so that’s nice,” Ford said. “Just to get something going tonight was big. Whole season comes down to one game tomorrow. We’re pretty light in here so I think we’ll be fine with it. So yeah, just have fun.”
With the offense finally coming out of its slumber after scoring five runs in the first three games of the series, RailRiders starting pitcher Ryan Bollinger was able to hold down the fort — even on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff
Bollinger didn’t get into much trouble, and was only pulled from the game in the sixth inning after a Refsnyder double and it became evident that the southpaw was becoming less effective.
Still, Bollinger pitched 5.2 scoreless innings and only gave up three hits and walked a batter while striking out six.
“To be honest, it was kind of a little bit of ‘effectively wild.’ That’s kind of the way I’ve been throwing all year, and I’m OK with that,” Bollinger said. “I was able to get the breaking ball over early and I was able to have the fastball command early on, and I think it set the tone. Obviously, the early innings, there was a lot of early contact so it kept the pitch count down and then they started being a little bit more patient so it drove the pitch count up, which is why I think I inevitably was taken out. I would have loved to have stayed in, but the pitch count caught up to me.”
Holding the momentum, a stacked bullpen, the offense finally waking up and Domingo German on the mound Saturday, the RailRiders enter the series finale with a lot of confidence. And with a win, the RailRiders will be playing in the Triple-A National Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.
The winner of the Governors’ Cup Finals, either the RailRiders or the Bulls, will face the winner of the Pacific Coast League Finals, the Memphis Redbirds or Fresno Grizzlies.
“Even after the last two games, you really couldn’t feel that much momentum swing, just because our offense wasn’t really going, so the games we lose, I think we only scored in two innings in the first three games. It’s just, you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for that to break and tonight it really kind of felt like it broke, obviously, with Mike’s three-run home run and the early two runs. It kind of really is important for us to get off to a lead because a lot of times our pitching staff seems to hold it down.”
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle