The beauty of baseball is that anything, anything can happen, as long as you’ve got outs left. But beauty to one team may be beastly to another.
Making their second appearance in the South Atlantic League Championship, as they were declared co-champions while holding a 2-0 lead in their inaugural season with the Asheville Tourists when the September 11th attacks occurred, the Lexington Legends got off to a very good start Monday. They had dominant pitching, inning after inning. Their defense was firing on all cylinders. Everything was going smoothly.
And then, it wasn’t. The Legends went down to defeat against the Lakewood BlueClaws in eleven innings, 6-5.
Starting righty Yefri Del Rosario did his level best over six innings, striking out seven and walking two while giving up a single hit in the process. Lakewood had to wait until the fifth inning for that one-base knock from SS Nick Maton, which ultimately went for naught. After walking lead-off batter Matt Vierling, he got Simon Muzziotti on a high, bounding one-hopper to 1B Nick Pratto, then set down Jake Scheiner and Rodolpho Duran on swinging strikes.
Lexington got on the board first when Pratto walked and Brewer Hicklen crushed a 2-2 pitch over the right-field wall. Del Rosario gave up a walk to Madison Stokes, but induced a couple of fly-outs to left and a pop-up to Ricky Aracena to strand the Lakewood runner.
Cal Jones singled on a fastball on the outer third of the plate, a hard liner to left off of Lakewood starter Damon Jones. Sebastian Rivero went down on strikes and Aracena popped up to his counterpart at second, Dalton Guthrie, but Kyle Isbel reached on a bad throw by Maton and Jones advanced to third. The threat was ended when C MJ Melendez flew out on a 2-0 pitch to Muzziotti in center.
It was two more strikeouts for Del Rosario in the top of the third, when 3B Jose Antequera went down looking, Vierling flew out to Jones, and Muzziotti whiffed on a fastball right down the heart of the plate.
Pratto started the bottom of the third with a shot over the right-field deck that he hit off of an inside fastball, down 0-2 in the count, giving the Legends a 3-0 lead. Hicklen and 3B Manny Olloque grounded out to Antequera, SS Cristian Perez drew the walk but was stranded when Jones swung on a third strike in the dirt and was tossed out at first by Duran.
The top of the 4th was uneventful, as Scheiner grounded out to Perez, while Duran and Jhailyn Ortiz added to Del Rosario’s “K” collection. The bottom of the fourth saw Lexington tack on another run when Isbel doubled on a 1-2 inside pitch and Melendez brought him home on a short drive to center, extending Lexington’s lead to 4-0.
After Maton finally gave Lakewood their first base hit of the night in the top of the fifth, Stokes was called out on strikes after an eight-pitch battle and Guthrie grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Lexington faced off against righty reliever Gustavo Armas and got nothing out of him beyond a seven-pitch Hicklen walk. Hicklen was cut down at second on a steal attempt with Jones batting after Olloque popped up and Perez did the same to Scheiner.
Lakewood had nothing going in the top of the sixth, but Jones led off the bottom of the inning a hard-hit single, deep to left, that was cut off quickly by Vierling. Rivero dropped a nice sac bunt to move Jones to second, but only after Armas tried twice in vain to pick him off. Aracena struck out swinging, but Isbel once again came through, driving in Jones to make it 5-0, Lexington. Isbel would be nailed at second on a steal attempt.
As RHP Janser Lara entered the game in the seventh, he got Scheiner on a ground-out to Aracena, walked Duran on four somewhat controversial pitches (at least two could have been strikes), Ortiz struck out swinging. Lara walked Maton, but Stokes struck out on a 2-2 pitch and stranded two runners in the process.
The bottom of the seventh saw walks to Melendez and Hicklen, but little else, as Pratto and Olloque struck out swinging and Perez lined out to Scheiner on what sounded like a much harder-hit ball than it actually was.
The eighth inning was a routine one for both sides. The ninth, however, was not.
With RHP Daniel Duarte on the mound for his second inning of work, Josh Stephen singled on a 3-2 pitch that caught the heart of the plate. Scheiner was first-pitch swinging, swatting a hard-hit grounder to right. Duran followed this with the first of three straight homers for Lakewood. Ortiz hit a solo shot to right, and that would be it for Duarte as he gave way to RHP Tad Ratliff with Lakewood down by one.
Maton chased Ortiz’s homer with his own solo shot to right, and the BlueClaws had tied the game. This all happened before Lexington could get a single out.
Isbel, Melendez, and Pratto went down in order, and it was extra-inning time.
Ratliff retired Vierling, Stephen, and Scheiner in order to start the tenth inning. After Hicklen struck out looking, Olloque shot a laser beam to the center-field wall for a one-out double. SS Jeison Guzman entered to pinch-run for him, and new pitcher Connor Brogdon entered the game for Lakewood. He began by putting Perez on intentionally, but Jones and Rivero couldn’t get the winning run home.
With Garrett Suchey entering the game in the eleventh inning, Duran singled and move to second on Ortiz’s sacrifice bunt. After Maton grounded out to Perez, Duran moved to third. Stokes drove in what would be the winning run on a single to center after Such threw three straight pitches in the same zone and Stokes caught onto it.
Lakewood’s Zach Warren closed it out in the bottom of the inning, striking out Aracena, getting Isbel on a fly-out to right, and walking but stranding Melendez after Pratto ended the game striking out on a pitch in the dirt.
A tough loss for the home team, to be sure, but Game Two will see Jackson Kowar on the hill for the Legends facing LHP Kyle Young. The 6’10” Young has compiled a 13-5 record over four minor-league seasons, with a 2.74 ERA and 26 walks against 141 strikeouts in 151 1/3 innings. He recorded a .230 BAA in 59 1/3 innings this season across three leagues, with the vast majority of his innings at Lakewood. He gave up 9 walks in that span. He has never faced Lexington in his career.
Game Two of the South Atlantic League Championship is Tuesday at Whitaker Bank Ball Park at 6:05 PM.