Potomac primed for second half pennant
After he threw the first pitch of the top of the seventh inning Sunday, the look on Jake Walsh's face made the game seem so much worse for the Potomac Nationals than the 12-1 score indicated.
The southpaw took to the hill during the nightcap of a double-header against visiting Frederick to complete a no-hitter started by Ian Dickson, who left after the third out in the sixth inning due to breaking his 95-limit pitch count.
Dickson went over by three pitches but still picked up the last out in the sixth. Had he given up a hit or walk, Potomac manager Tripp Keister said he would have pulled him from the game right then and there.
The right-handed starter from New York began operating more efficiently in the fifth inning, taking out the Keys 1-2-3 in 12 pitches before leading off with sixth with six straight balls, cueing Walsh in the bullpen.
Yet a line out to center field, strike out and 6-4 ground out kept the no-no intact.
Dickson received word that he would not re-enter once he returned to the dugout.
"That's not something we take lightly," said Keister, adding, "He wasn't happy but I wasn't expecting him to be."
In fact, Dickson explained that if he hadn't walked five batters, the same number he struck out, he could have been in the position to close out the game.
"I understand how these things work," he said. "I knew that I wasted a lot of pitches ... I was definitely frustrated with myself."
As for Walsh, the 23-year-old Texas native heaved his first pitch of the last frame to Frederick designated hitter Chih-Hsien Chiang.
Chiang clearly anticipated the fastball as he golfed the ball deep into right field, sending outfielder Brandon Miller running toward the wall.
"I wanted to throw my glove at it so bad," said Miller with a laugh after the game, explaining he could be ejected or fined if he actually did do that, as entertaining as it would have been to watch.
Miller gave up pursuit well before the warning track as the ball kept sailing, landing in the gravel parking lot behind the right field wall.
Walsh stood in front of the mound and looked up at the night sky as Chiang rounded the bases, his arms hanging by his side.
In terms of winning the game or locking up the Carolina League Northern Division pennant for the second half of the year, the hit meant nothing for first-place Potomac (34-23).
But it had also been since May 19, 1995 that anyone from the franchise last threw a no-hitter, back when the Class A-Advanced ball club was still the Prince William Cannons.
Three pitches later, Miller made good on the next hit his way, catching a fly ball for the first out of the inning.
Walsh then fielded a ground ball himself for the next out and a 1-1 fly ball to substitute left fielder Randolph Oduber ending the double-header with a combined one-hitter by the Potomac pitching staff.
It served the Nationals well after falling 4-3 in the earlier game against a complete game thrown by Frederick's Mark Blackmar (9-1). That allowed Potomac to take a 2-1 advantage in the four-game set due to wrap up Monday night at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium for the last home game of the regular season.
The sterling pitching performance seemed almost like an afterthought in the second game given Potomac's punishment of Frederick's four pitchers.
Miller led off the bottom of the fifth inning by crushing a first-pitch fastball so far over the left-center field wall, it hit one of the trees to the left of the scoreboard, rustling the branches about halfway up the trunk.
Asked about the hit, Miller mentioned it's his second longest shot of the year, adding that he watched Frederick's pitchers between innings.
"They were throwing a lot of fastballs," he said.
Potomac figured out the Keys rather quickly, starting in the bottom of the first inning when second baseman Tony Renda clubbed a RBI double off the left field wall to score lead off batter Isaac Ballou.
After a scoreless second inning, shortstop Stephen Perez either made a lucky miscue or an intentional one on a pop fly in the infield he dropped with a man on base, quickly recovering for a 6-4-3 double play.
Keister glared straight ahead while sitting at his desk after the game when asked about the play, cracked a wry smile and insisted Perez "lost it in the lights."
"He's the best defensive player I've ever played with: Stephen Perez," said Miller.
In the bottom frame, designated hitter Shawn Pleffner rocked his own RBI double off the right-center field wall that drove in Renda from third base.
Back-to-back walks to clean-up batter Mike McQuillan and Perez loaded the bases for third baseman John Wooten, who knocked in Pleffner with a a one-bounce single to right field.
Two batters later, one of Frederick's six wild pitches scored McQuillian after it skipped off the back pointed part of the plate and toward the backstop. When the next pitch nicked the catcher's glove on a high fastball, it too rolled backward and scored Perez, putting the Nationals up 5-0.
With runners in scoring position the next inning and facing a full count, Perez smacked a sharp grounder between the second baseman and corresponding bag to drive in Ballou and Renda.
Wooten then launched a deep line drive that bounced off the center fielder's glove, scoring the eighth run of the game.
Miller's bomb gave Potomac a 9-0 advantage in the fifth inning. An error at shortstop the next inning on a hit by first baseman Estarlin Martinez brought home Perez for run No. 10 after the second baseman reached on a double down the right field line.
A walk with the bases loaded to Rockville, Maryland native Craig Manuel, the catcher batting in the nine-hole, forced in Wooten for the 11th run and a sacrifice fly by Ballou sent Martinez home marking the 12th and final run.
It also handed the Nationals their largest margin of victory this year while buffering their lead to six games over both Lynchburg (30-31) and Wilmington (29-30) with one week left in the regular season.
"I thought we responded well" to the first game, said Keister. "It would be a mistake for me to make some speech" gearing up the team for the playoffs.
Frederick (27-33) needed a sweep against Potomac to stay competitive but dropped to 8.5 games out. The Keys are set to host the Nationals for the final series of the regular season, which wraps up Monday in Frederick.
Sunday's attendance also pushed Potomac over the 240,000 mark for the season, setting a new franchise record though the season total fell short of the 250,000 goal set by the team's administrators.
If Potomac makes it to the Mills Cup championship after hosting every semifinals game, then the Nationals just may crack that number.
The playoffs begin in Woodbridge at the Pfitz on Thursday, Sept. 4. Potomac is guaranteed to host the second game that Friday.
If a third game is needed in the best-of-three game set, it would be played on the P-Nats' home field if they win the second half title.
"I'll tell you what: we're all very aware of the position we're in," said Dickson.
He added though that the group doesn't feel any pressure as it's a fun environment both on the field and in the clubhouse.
"We always keep it loose in the dug out and even the bullpen. I spend more time with these guys than my own family," he said.
"It's not a need to win. It's 'go out and have some fun.'"