Flying Squirrels Walk-Off Against Altoona
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Apr 11, 2014, 22:24
RICHMOND — Pitching was set to be the headline for the Flying Squirrels in a home-opening four-game set against the Altoona Curve. Thursday's opener featured Clayton Blackburn, a highly-regarded right-hander with a proficiency in striking out opponents, who lived up to his billing with six punch-outs but lasted just four innings in a 6-1 loss.
Yet, with a rotation pegged to be among the best in all of the Minors, there was hope to turn around the series immediately with Adalberto Mejia scheduled to take the hill Friday night. Mejia, the youngest pitcher in the Eastern League at 20 years of age and the youngest player in Squirrels' history to win a game, stepped on to the mound and immediately showed why the hype was warranted.
Mejia's first-pitch was up and away at a cackling 93 mph, but he quickly regained his footing, pounding the zone with a tailing fastball on both the inside and outside corners. Then, with the count at 1-2, Mejia uncorked a ruthless change-up down and away to Altoona lead-off hitter Alen Hanson as he swung through it to complete the punch-out.
But the fun times wouldn't last for Mejia.
The lefty would be drilled by a line-drive off the bat of No. 2 hitter Gift Ngoebe before remaining in the game long enough to surrender back-to-back hits before getting out of his first and last inning while surrendering one run. The eventful first inning, one which Richmond saw its starting pitcher get knocked out of the game with a contusion on his left shin, seemed to indicate the type of night it would be at The Diamond.
Through five full innings, Richmond had managed to compile just one hit — an opposite-field single off the bat of Jarrett Parker — but relief pitcher Austin Fleet kept them in the game long enough to give his team a chance. And that was all the Squirrels needed to capture an unlikely comeback win with a four-run 9th inning as Matt Duffy's slow grounder to short resulted in a walk-off 5-4 victory in front of a sold-out crowd at The Diamond.
"It speaks to the fact that we are not giving up and are continuing to grind until the last out is made," manager Russ Morman said after the win. "When good things happen there is no last out."
But without Fleet's magnificent effort, Richmond's (5-4) bats would not have been able to awake from its slumber to make a meaningful impact.
Fleet's starting experience showed on the hill as the 27-year-old befuddled the Altoona lineup with an assortment of breaking balls and a tailing fastball which was spotted on the corners. The former starting pitcher completed 4.1 innings while surrendering just one hit and striking out three, thoroughly impressing his teammates.
"If it wasn't for the way he pitched, we are not in position to win that game," Duffy said at his locker after his game-winning single. "He's been in these situations. He was a starter last year at San Jose, so he knows how to get deep into the ball game and I think that mentality helped him."
However, for much of the game, a Richmond win seemed completely unlikely after they squandered a chance to take the lead in the 6th after a Duffy double chased home Tyler Graham to tie the game, but the No. 3 through 5 hitters failed to bring in the shortstop.
The opportunity squandered breathed new life into the Curve as they unloaded on Squirrels' reliever Cody Hall in a nightmarish eighth inning. Hall surrendered a bloop-single to Mel Rojas Jr. to allow Altoona to take a 2-1 lead before serving up a two-run home run to Willy Garcia to seemingly put the game out of reach.
That is until the 9th inning rally.
With two outs and a runner on first base, Skyler Stromsmoe hit a bloop single to left field to keep the inning alive. Then, pinch-hitter Ricky Oropesa was hit by a pitch on a 2-2 count to load the bases and set the stage for Graham.
Graham didn't hesitate in lining a double down the right-field line to score two runs and pass the baton to Duffy, down 4-3, and runners at second and third.
"I just wanted to see the ball and get a good pitch to hit," Duffy would say of his mindset.
The Squirrels' No. 2 hitter came into the game hitting .300 on the young season and worked the count full after fouling off a pitch to the back-stop on a 3-1 delivery from Altoona pitcher Matt Benedict. Then, on the very next pitch, Duffy unloaded but the ball bounced in front of home-plate, slowly moving toward short.
Duffy peaked out of the corner of his eye and saw it go by the pitcher and knew it wouldn't be an easy play.
"I knew I had a shot to reach first base," he said. "I could tell he was going to get a tough hop, so I just put my head down and ran as fast as I could.
His hustle put the pressure on shortstop Alen Hanson as he booted the ball, allowing the winning run to score and left Duffy to find himself in the middle of a crowd of teammates at first base after his game-winning infield single.
And with the Giants' No. 1 prospect Kyle Crick on the mound for Saturday's game, Richmond can keep the good vibes going behind another solid pitching performance Saturday evening.