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It was a pitch that went exactly where Ben Moore wanted it: Up and in.
And yet within an instance of an explosive Bryant Nelson swing on the no-balls, one-strike offering, Moore looked up to his left with much dismay.
The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs right-hander saw the switch-hitting Nelson turn on a difficult pitch and get all of it, cranking a no-doubter over the right-field wall for a dramatic two-run, go-ahead home run with one out in the eighth inning that ultimately sent the host Long Island Ducks to a 5-4 comeback victory in Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 5 of the Liberty Division Championship Series.
“I’m not going to lie to you, if I throw that pitch to him 100 times, he’s going to hit it hard once,” Moore said of his delivery that Nelson turned into the game- and series-winning homer with Long Island trailing 3-2 at the time. “It was a good pitch, right where I wanted it. He just beat me on that pitch.”
The Blue Crabs had fought all the way back from a two-games-to-none deficit in the best-of-five series they entered as the favorites after dropping the first two contests at home in Waldorf’s Regency Furniture Stadium. Games 1 and 2 saw the Blue Crabs lose in tight fashion by 4-3 and 3-1 finals, respectively.
But they turned the pendulum in their favor during Games 3 and 4 with comeback road wins of 7-5 and 4-3, respectively, to set the stage for a compelling Game 5 with four lead changes that provided all the theatre befitting of such an intriguing series.
The Blue Crabs were just five outs away from pulling off the monstrous series comeback and make their second trip in team history to the Atlantic League Championship Series versus Lancaster and former manager Butch Hobson.
For the second straight postseason, Long Island end the Blue Crabs’ championship hopes. Last year, Long Island won the divisional series in four games.
“That’s as difficult of a loss as I’ve experienced,” Blue Crabs manager Patrick Osborn said right after Game 5 as his somber team prepared to travel back to Southern Maryland on Sunday night. “To come back from a 0-2 hole, have the lead in the eighth inning and it slips away. We just fell short.”
He added, “I thought we pitched well enough to win the series. We just didn’t swing the bats like we needed to.”
Former Long Island player Matt Padgett went 1 for 3 in Game 5 with a double and run scored for the Blue Crabs. He desperately wanted to beat many of his friends on the other side.
“Man, it just stinks to lose that way,” he said. “We had a good squad. We had an amazing run, an amazing year. [The Game 5 loss] was kind of typical of how we played all year. We grinded out games to the end.
“The Game 5 situation was awesome to play in and compete. Every pitch, every out, it just all counts. It’s tough to have the lead for most of the game and lose it in the end.”
Moore, an accomplished multiple pitcher-of-the-year winner from the American Association, had been impressive through his previous 2 1/3 innings of relief — an unusual role for the starting hurler who was also the hard-luck loser in Game 1 of the series with just three earned runs allowed in 7 1/3 innings in another one-run Blue Crabs loss.
The well-pitched series was so closely contested that none of the games were decided by more than two runs. And the one-run Long Island victory in Game 5 was the total run differential in the Ducks favor for the entire evenly-matched series.
“The at-bat to Nelson, I would say yeah, it sucks,” Moore said. “But I’m not second-guessing it. Maybe I’ll second-guess the pitch to [Brandon] Sing, [who singled right before Nelson]. If I made a better pitch to Sing, it’s a tied game [after Nelson’s homer] and maybe we do win. [Sing] had never gotten a hit off me in his career. Now he’s 1 for 5.”
So close, yet so far
Only adding to the crushing nature of the defeat was the Blue Crabs came up just 90 feet short of tying the game in the ninth after scoring earlier in the frame to get within a run of Long Island — which went ahead 5-3 in the eighth when Lee Cruz followed the Nelson homer heroics with a smashed double down the left-field line that chased Moore from the game and then his pinch-runner Matt Esquivel scored on a Shawne Williams single off Southern Maryland reliever Charlie Manning.
The feisty Blue Crabs refused to go down easily, getting to within a run of the lead, at 5-4, during a nail-biting ninth on a Long Island throwing error by Nelson at third that enabled Brian Barton to score.
The Blue Crabs continued to rally later in the inning with the tying run at the third with one down but could not knot the affair, as pinch-runner Cory Morales was tagged out in a rundown between third and home to keep Long Island from turning a potentially game-ending double play on a groundball.
With runners on first and second and two down in the ninth, Cesar Nicolas worked a walk to load the bases for the Blue Crabs.
But Long Island closer Leo Rosales, who blew a 3-2 lead ironically the night before in the eighth when Jesse Gutierrez smacked a two-run homer in the Blue Crabs Game 4 thrilling victory, struck out Kevin Rios with the bases loaded to end the comeback bid and season for Southern Maryland.
“All we really wanted was a chance to win the series,” said Blue Crabs center fielder and hitting coach Jeremy Owens, who scored the first run of Game 5 in the fourth in the strangest of ways on a two-out balk from Long Island starter Bobby Blevins. “We got a little unlucky. It was really just one bad pitch that got us in the eighth.
“It’s stung a little bit, but we gave ourselves a chance [after being down 2-0 in the series]. We came up five outs short.”
Owens, who has been with the Blue Crabs almost since the beginning of their existence in 2008 as a team leader, added, “I think [this is the most difficult loss I’ve experienced]. I don’t dwell on losses a lot, but this one leaves a hole in your side, a pit in your stomach… Whatever you want to call it.
“What it’s going to do is make us fired up for next year.”
This series was all about the crazy eighth. The team that won each game scored at least two runs in the eighth.
Liberty Division Championship Series (Long Island wins, 3-2)
Game 5, Sunday
Long Island 5, Blue Crabs 4
Blue Crabs 000 120 001 4 5 0
Long Island 000 200 03x 5 9 1
WP Way (2-0), LP Moore (0-2), Save Rosales (3)
Extra-base hits: 2B Padgett (BC, 1), Rios (BC, 2), Cruz (LI, 1); HR Sing (LI, 3), Nelson (LI, 1)
Game 4, Saturday
Blue Crabs 4, Long Island 3
Blue Crabs 100 000 120 4 9 0
Long Island 110 001 000 3 5 0
WP Reichert (1-0), LP Rosales (0-1), Save Mobley (2)
Extra-base hits: HR Owens (BC, 1), Gutierrez (BC, 2), Sing (LI, 2)
Game 3, Friday
Blue Crabs 7, Long Island 5
Blue Crabs 000 010 420 7 8 2
Long Island 010 010 021 5 9 2
WP Manning (1-0), LP Niesen (0-1), Save Mobley (1)
Extra-base hits: 2B Gutierrez (BC, 1), Rios (BC, 1), Navarrete (LI, 1), Esquivel (LI, 1); HR Esquivel (LI, 1)
Game 2, Thursday
Long Island 3, Blue Crabs 1
Long Island 000 000 021 3 7 0
Blue Crabs 000 010 000 1 4 2
WP Way (1-0), LP Vasquez (0-1), Save Rosales (2)
Extra-base hits: 2B Nelson (LI, 1); HR Sing (LI, 1), Mercado (BC, 1)
Game 1, Wednesday
Long Island 4, Blue Crabs 3
Long Island 200 000 020 4 9 1
Blue Crabs 000 020 010 3 6 0
WP Lansford (1-0), LP Moore (0-1), Save Rosales (1)
Extra-base hits: 2B Binick (LI, 1), Brodin (LI, 2), Sing (LI, 1), Lyons (LI, 1), Barton (BC, 1); HR Gutierrez (BC, 1)