In the two games since being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in the second half of the Atlantic League schedule, the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs could hardly be accused of packing up for vacation.
Tuesday evening in Game 2 of a four-game series versus the Lancaster Barnstormers at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Southern Maryland got a combined shutout from pitchers Mitch Lambson, James Dykstra and Kevin Munson, 4-0. It was the second straight shutout in the series by Blue Crabs pitchers after a 3-0 win on Monday.
Wednesday evening, Southern Maryland scored first but failed to score again and suffered a 2-1 setback to Lancaster in the penultimate game of the team's 10-game homestand.
The finale of the series with the Barnstormers occurred on Thursday evening, which not only completed the homestand but also the Blue Crabs' home schedule as they will wrap the season with a three-game series versus Sugar Land that begins tonight in Texas, the same spot where Southern Maryland began the season in late April.
"We have been getting outstanding pitching this entire home stand," Southern Maryland manager Stan Cliburn said. "[Dusten] Knight was outstanding on Monday, Lambson was excellent last night and [Kevin] McGovern was really good tonight, but we didn't score any runs for him. Our pitching was good all season. I think we're third or fourth in the league in team ERA. We just haven't scored many runs."
In the bottom of the first inning on Wednesday, the Blue Crabs gained an early lead against Lancaster starter John Anderson as leadoff batter Kent Blackstone "stole" first base under the new Atlantic League-Major League Baseball partnership rules on a 1-ball, 0-strike pitch, stole second base the old-fashioned way, went to third on a single by Edwin Garcia then scored on a sacrifice fly to deep center field by Jon Griffin.
"That was third time this season I've been able to steal first," Blackstone said. "The owner is giving out a bonus to whoever steals first base the most. That's one of my goals. I just have to hope Tony [Thomas] doesn't catch me. It was a really good start to the game tonight. We just could not come up with more runs after the first inning."
Lancaster ended a long scoring drought against Southern Maryland in the top of the second when K.C. Hobson belted a two-run home run off Blue Crabs starter McGovern. It was the first runs that an opponent had scored against Southern Maryland pitching since the third inning of Sunday's game versus Long Island, which the Blue Crabs rallied back from down 5-0 to walk off the Ducks in the bottom of the ninth, 6-5.
Lancaster nearly added to its lead in the top of the seventh against Southern Maryland reliever John Hayes, but one Barnstormers base running mistake changed the complexion of the inning.
Third baseman Melvin Mercedes led off with a single to right, then Devon Torrence had a one-out single to right and Mercedes went to third on the play. But the Blue Crabs contended that Mercedes failed to touch second base on his way to third, appealed to the umpires and Hayes threw to Garcia at second where the third base umpire Derek Moccia called Mercedes out.
Torrence, whose hits was erased on the appeal play, was then caught stealing second to end the inning. Lancaster had two base runners reach in the seventh against Hayes, but the visitors also failed to score that frame.
Parker Morin led off the eighth with a single off Blue Crabs reliever Ryan Chaffee, went to second on a passed ball but was stranded there when Hobson fanned and Torrence grounded out to second.
Southern Maryland went in quest of some two-out magic in the bottom of the ninth. Lancaster closer Casey Crosby retired the first two batters, but Thomas reached on a strikeout/wild pitch then took second when Cory Vaughn "stole" first on an 0-2 pitch in the dirt. After Thomas stole third, however, Charlie Valerio flew out to shallow left to end the game.
One night earlier, Lambson, Dykstra and Munson combined to blank the Barnstormers while limiting the visitors to just six hits.
The game was scoreless until the bottom of the sixth when Vaughn led off the inning with his 23rd homer of the season. With two outs and a runner on, Travis Witherspoon connected on a two-run shot to extend the lead to 3-0. Witherspoon hit his second homer of the night in the eighth against former Blue Crabs closer Cody Eppley to end the scoring.
Witherspoon was 3 for 4 with his pair of homers and drove in three runs, while Blackstone went 3 for 4 and Josh McAdams had two hits.
"I thought I was swinging the bat really well last night," Witherspoon said. "I was relaxed and just waiting for my pitch and I got a couple of good pitches to hit. Tonight was a little different, but their pitchers were really good. It wasn't the outcome we had hoped for, but we've been playing really well the last two weeks. Our pitchers have been outstanding. Each night they go out there and give us a chance to win."
Blackstone noted after the game that once the season ends he is hoping to play baseball in Australia during the offseason and Valerio noted that he is heading to the Dominican Republic to begin winter ball on Sept. 25. Witherspoon plans to get into directing and writing films with a primary focus on suspense and thrillers.
"I really want to keep working on my game," Blackstone said. "I just want to get stronger and keep getting better. This season was a whole new level for me. I know that I need to work hard and keep getting better in order to come back here next year and have an impact. Our pitching was amazing this summer. The other teams are lucky we didn't make the playoffs."
Monday, Knight fanned 17 batters and limited the Barnstormers to just two hits in a complete-game performance.
Knight's 17 strikeouts established a new Atlantic League record for a nine-inning game, breaking the previous mark held by Somerset hurler Ray Davis that had stood for just over 19 years. The complete game was the 14th for a Blue Crabs pitcher this season, also setting a league record.
The Blue Crabs runs came on a Thomas leadoff homer in the second, a Vaughn 2-out solo shot in the fourth and Rubi Silva stole third and came home on an error in the eighth.
Despite the win, a York 3-2 victory over Long Island on Monday night in Pennsylvania ended all hopes of the Blue Crabs reaching this year’s playoffs.