The Neptune Beach Pearl came into the California Collegiate League playoffs as an underdog with few expecting anything more than an early exit from the CCL newcomers.
“I think we came in relaxed even if most people thought they were supposed to be better than us,” Pearl pitcher Zach Fox said. “We knew we beat the Blues before and baseball is completely different when playoff time rolls around. It is all about who gets hot. I think we are just having lot of fun down here take advantage of our wildcard situation. We are staying at a Motel-6, 40 miles away from the stadium. We commuted down here in our own cars while other teams came in a bus. We are taking advantage of being the underdog. While everyone else is thinking they are better than us, we are trying to surprise everybody.”
The rag-tag Pearl have played liked poised champions, while the winners of the last three CCL championships – LA Brewers (31-8, 26-7) and San Luis Obispo Blues (41-14, 29-11) – have fumbled around like rookies just called up to the show. The Pearl followed Friday’s 6-3 victory over the Brewers with a 3-1 victory over the Blues on Saturday, taking advantage of four different Blues’ mistakes to score all three runs.
“I can’t say we forced all of them, but we took advantage of them,” Pearl coach Brant Cummings said. “We might have created one mistake when Eric Sapp led off the third with a single and we were going to run. The pitcher was so concerned about him he threw over. On his third try he thought he had him picked off and then he threw his fourth try into the dirt.”
The speedy Sapp advanced to third on a two-strike grounder to second by Myles Babitt and scored on a sharp grounder to third by Ozzy Braff to give the Pearl a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish. Two errors and an RBI single by Connor Tekyl gave the Pearl a 1-0 lead in the first. Babitt scored after reaching second on a two-base error by the second baseman and scored without a play when Blues right fielder Collin Ferguson aggressively charged the ball and rather than coming up throwing, the ball squirted away from him allowing Tekyl to reach second.
“We’ve got to not commit errors, throw strikes and execute our offense to beat these teams,” Cummings said. “We did that today, but it can be difficult for us at times because we have been inconsistent with runners in scoring position all year. In these two games we’ve been good. We haven’t missed many opportunities to score.”
The Pearl extended the lead to 3-1 in the fifth after a leadoff single by Logan Frandsen. He advanced to second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on Babitt’s second two-strike grounder to the right side, this time getting a single. Frandsen then scored on a one-out, two-strike grounder to second by Braff.
The Blues rallied from the 1-0 deficit behind back-to-back doubles to lead off the second. Fox didn’t try to throw harder, but continued to ply his craft, getting the next three hitters out without the ball leaving the infield.
“My motto is find bats, miss barrels,” Fox said. “Let them get themselves out. Coaches say 7 out of 10 hitters get themselves out and that number is even worse when you hit spots and change speeds. Most of time when I let a runer on, I feel confident the next guy will fly out or I’ll get the guy to hit into a double play. It is easy to do well when you have people you know are going to make plays behind you.”
Fox would need people to make plays, after allowing the leadoff man to reach in the first two innings, he allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in four straight innings after 1-2-3 third and fourth innings. Each leadoff man reaching put the tying run on base or at the plate, but followed with 3 straight outs in the fifth, sixth and seventh. In the eight, he walked two of the first three hitters and Cummings went to the pen for Devon Golden.
Golden notched the save, picking up the final five outs, but he too needed the people behind him to make plays. Entering with runners on first and second, he almost made things worse for himself when he bounced a breaking ball in the dirt, but Fishback blocked the ball and picked it up quickly enough to throw out Erik Lewis who attempted to reach third. Sapp followed with another defensive pearl.
“They hit what Vin Scully would have called a spinning gyroscopic grounder,” Cummings said. “It was a cue shot that rolled up Sapp’s shoulder and fluttered toward second, but Sapp pounced on it and dove to first touching it with his glove to beat him by a step.”
By getting through the first two games using only three pitchers, Cummings has his ideal matchup going into Sunday. He has closer Evan Rutter fresh to start Sunday’s noon rematch with the Brewers, who recovered from their loss against the Pearl with a 6-0 victory over Walnut Creek and a 7-2 win over SLO last night.
“I planned that all week,” Cummings said of the best-case-scenario. “Depending on how thing went, I told him if we were able to make it through Friday and today without needing him, I’d start him. This has been a blessing. I should have Devon and Ryan McCarthy to close for him in game one and if it goes two games I’ve got a lot of options.”
Rutter hasn’t picked more than 3 innings, on any level, in a game in over a year, but Cummings said he will take it inning by inning and see how he’s doing.
“We’ve got faith in coach and we’ve got faith in Evan,” Fox said. “He’s pitched great all year and he piched a bunch last weekend which should set him up to start this weekend. Something you ask on any team is to get in position to win and with where we are now with such a deep, fresh bullpen, I like our chances. If Evan can go four or five, we’ve got plenty of guys left in the pen.”