ALLENTOWN — The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders had plenty of chances to complete a three-game sweep of the International League North Division champion Lehigh Valley IronPigs on Friday night.
Looking to advance to the Governors’ Cup Finals for the third straight season, the RailRiders peppered Lehigh Valley pitching with 10 hits through the first seven innings, but managed just two runs while stranding eight.
Lehigh Valley’s bend-don’t-break pitching performance kept the door ajar for the IronPigs, who used a game-tying two-run home run from Colin Cowgill in the sixth inning to send the game to extras, and set up a 3-2 walk-off single by Nick Rickles to keep Lehigh Valley alive another night.
The IronPigs will face elimination again on Saturday night, when the two teams square off in Game 4 of the first-round series.
The RailRiders put runners on first and second with one out in the 11th, but Tyler Viza forced back-to-back flyouts to keep the game tied. They followed with a bases-loaded, one-out rally an inning later, but Ranfi Casimiro, who was Lehigh Valley’s eighth pitcher of the evening, retired the next two batters to keep their season alive.
The RailRiders stranded a total of 14 runners in the extra-inning affair, giving the Lehigh Valley offense time to slowly break out of their extended slumber, which has plagued them since Game 1 of the series.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen two runs on 15 hits,” RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell said of the frustrating offensive performance. “That’s pretty hard to do.”
Ryan Bollinger picked up right where Nestor Cortes left off in his Game 2 shutout, retiring the first nine IronPigs he faced as Lehigh Valley continued to labor through their offensive coma.
“Our pitching did well,” Mitchell said. “They were fine. A lot of guys went out there and did well.
“Our problem is we have to score.”
Desperate for baserunners, Jesmuel Valentin dropped down a drag bunt with two outs in the third, but Gio Urshela made a beautiful barehanded play to nab the hustling Valentin. The replay later showed Valentin had actually just beat out the throw.
Nevertheless, the sparkling play completed the 15th straight scoreless inning by Railrider pitching.
The RailRiders flirted with multiple rallies in the early innings, but Lehigh Valley starter Drew Anderson found a way to evade trouble. After a third-inning lead-off single by Rey Navarro, Shane Robinson and Mark Payton followed with a pair of line drives right at the corner outfielders. With two outs, Urshela smacked his second single of the night, but was caught straying too far off first after Joey Meneses misplayed the hop in right field.
Urshela wandered toward second when Meneses tried to throw out Navarro at third, but shortstop Dean Anna wisely cut off the throw to retire Meneses and end the threat.
Batting from the nine hole, Navarro broke a scoreless tie in the fifth with a missile that cut through the heavy winds at Coca-Cola Park, clearing the right field wall to give the RailRiders a 1-0 lead.
One inning later, he laced a double down the left field line to plate a second run. It looked like it would be a two-run double, but Caldwell was thrown out at home trying to score from first. Given how the IronPigs were swinging the bats, two runs appeared to be plenty to close the door on the ‘Pigs for the third time in three postseasons.
The home-run heavy ‘Pigs finally struck blood when George Kontos relieved Bollinger in the sixth. Cowgill greeted Kontos with a game-tying blast to left field to damper Bollinger’s masterful performance. The lefty finished with one earned run on one hit through 5.2 innings.
“It was just a mistake George made…left it in and a little bit up,” Mitchell said. “If he hits a base hit, we win, and they only score the one run. It is what it is.”
The home run was the IronPigs’ first run since the sixth inning of game one, and the team’s first extra base hit of the series. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
For the RailRiders, there were plenty of opportune times to finish off the ‘Pigs, but the knockout punch never came.
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