MOOSIC — In a matter of minutes, the momentum, the game and the series shifted from the Lehigh Valley IronPigs to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
IronPigs third baseman Hector Gomez started the seventh inning with a lead-off double to the left field wall, but he would get no further on the basepaths after he was called out trying to advance to third on a fly ball that ended the inning.
Then, on the second pitch of the bottom half of the inning, Mike Ford put the RailRiders ahead for good with a home run into the hill in right field. The solo shot would be all the RailRiders needed as they beat Lehigh Valley 1-0 to take the best-of-five first-round series.
From agony to ecstasy, the RailRiders were on their way to the Governors’ Cup finals for the second straight year.
“That was a big play at second base. I was talking to (pitching coach Tommy) Phelps about the next inning, about the pitching, and all of the sudden I heard (catcher Eddy) Rodriguez screaming, running off the field. They told me that a guy left early,” RailRiders manager Al Pedrique said. “I think the momentum turned to our side and that’s when everybody in the dugout said, ‘OK, it’s time for us to score some runs.’ ”
With the game in the balance, and Gomez standing on second base with one out, Lehigh Valley catcher Nick Rickles walked up to the plate. In his previous at-bat, he had gotten the better of RailRiders starting pitcher Nestor Cortes, singling in the fifth, but that wouldn’t be the case this time around.
Cortes got Rickles to fly out to deep right, but as the play was developing Rodriguez noticed something off at second base. Not sure whether Gomez left early or not, he told Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shortstop Jonathan Diaz to touch second base. Diaz did and Gomez was called out. Just like that the inning was over.
Then Ford came up to lead off the bottom of the frame and the rest was history.
“Did I know if he left early or not? I don’t know. I just saw something that didn’t look normal and then the umpire was in the area and I’m like, ‘OK, we don’t lose anything by catching that ball and tagging,’ ” Rodriguez said. “I’m actually, I’m proud of the umpire. Not necessarily because he called ‘out,’ but because he called the play true and a lot of times in emotional situations like that, to quote-unquote ‘take the integrity of the game’ or whatever — ‘Oh, we don’t want the game decided on that.’ You know what? It’s part of the rules. So the fact that he was able to call it speaks to his focus on the game. Hey, a rule’s a rule.”
While the majority of the RailRiders hadn’t seen Lehigh Valley starter Jacob Waguespack prior to Sunday’s Game 4 — the southpaw was making his Triple-A debut — that wasn’t the case for Ford. In fact, the RailRiders first baseman had faced him just seven days prior, when Ford was with Double-A Trenton and Waguespack made his start for the Reading Fightin Phils.
Even though Ford was 0-for-2 with a walk in the Sept. 3 tilt, he knew what to look for. He wanted a changeup, up in the zone.
It took two pitches and then drilled the changeup over the wall.
“Yeah, I had faced him a week ago in Trenton and I was looking for that pitch all day and I got it,” Ford said. “It’s awesome. This is where I want to be, with a great group of guys.”
With the RailRiders struggling to find a rhythm against Waguespack, Cortes put the team on his back.
The southpaw pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just five hits and a walk while striking out eight. Cortes, who’s been with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre most of August, picked up his third Triple-A win of the season and pitched his second shutout in four starts.
“The other pitcher, I give him a lot of credit. He kept me on my heels,” Cortes said. “I always try to out-pitch the other pitcher, but, you know, he was as great as me and I give him a lot of credit for it. The other team was keeping me on my toes too. They got a couple base hits off me, but I was able to get the zero.”
Cortes isn’t your average pitcher. And that was part of the reason Lehigh Valley struggled against him.
The 22-year-old left-hander’s repertoire includes a fastball in the upper 80s, an eephus pitch that went as low as 47 mph on Sunday, and a quick-pitch that came at 56 mph. And it’s all sidearmed.
“It’s funny. He does so many things and his ability to keep guys off his fastball,” Rodriguez said. “You wouldn’t think a guy that throws the upper 80s to be able to do that, and to tell you the truth, there’s no specific movement. It doesn’t move laterally. It doesn’t sink. It actually, it almost gives that quote-on-quote ‘rise feeling’ and guys have a really tough time squaring it up. So I think guys are cheating to it and that’s what makes his breaking stuff better.”
“I mean, that’s the way I pitch. It might not work somewhere else, but it worked today, you know? And I’m happy it did,” Cortes added.
RailRiders 1, Lehigh Valley 0
H. Rodriguez pr-dh`0`0`0`0
E. Rodriguez c`3`0`0`0
Lehigh Valley`000`000`000` —`0
OA: Cave; DP: IronPigs 0, RailRiders 2; LOB: IronPigs 6, RailRiders 5; 2B: Gomez (1), Andujar (3); HR: FOrd (1); SAC: Williams.
Waguespack (L, 0-1)`7.0`3`1`1`2`7
Cortes (W, 1-0)`7.0`5`0`0`1`8
Holder (H, 1)`1.0`0`0`0`0`2
Rumbelow (S, 2)`1.0`2`0`0`0`2
Umpires: Alex Tosi, HP; Robert Moreno, 1B; Dan Merzel, 2B; Ryan Clark, 3B.
Time: 2:01; Att.: 1:439.