It was the type of game that the Alpha Braves haven't been accustomed to playing this season: close.
The Alpha Braves remained unbeaten with a walkoff, 2-1 victory in extra innings Sunday over the Rays in Premier Division action in the Lehigh Valley Men's Baseball League Game of the Week.
In a clash of the league's most surprising teams, the Braves (9-0) traded in their customary blowout to grind out a win with pitching, defense, and baserunning.
For the Rays, battling into extras against the league leader provided further validation that this season will be better than the last. After a three-win campaign last season, the third-place Rays now hold a record of 6-2 and are comfortably among the contenders in the Premier Division.
"I am really proud of how our team battled and kept fighting and battling. There is a ton of baseball left this season and our team is going to be in the hunt for a championship," Rays Manager John Poretta said.
Lots of Gems, 1 Homer
Alpha's seventh homerun of the season, plus the fourth complete game from pitcher Colton Langway, carried the Braves.
Rays pitchers Mark Hansen and Rocky Sawyer kept it close, combining for nine strikeouts and only five hits, but the Rays could never plate a second run.
"This was a great game played by two really good teams. Both pitchers were dominant and kept the other team searching for offense. ... Can’t wait to play them again," Poretta said.
Alpha's Billy Oertel homered to tie the game in the second inning -- "The home run hit by their DH was a bomb," Poretta said -- after Rays catcher Franky Espinosa drove home Jimmy McCarthy on a first-inning sacrifice fly.
The catchers helped keep the score that way. Espinosa -- "a rock behind the plate," Poretta said -- retrieved a wild pitch and recovered in time to tag out the runner heading home. Alpha's catcher Rick Vegh in turn gunned down two baserunners in the fourth inning, and the score stayed 1-1 beyond regulation and into the eighth inning.
The Rays could have loaded the bases with one out in extra innings. But Braves third baseman Dylan Sapir made a heads up play to tag a runner who overran third base and slipped in the wet conditions. The Rays couldn't capitalize after that.
That set up Billy Kromar, who knocked in Anthony Ciaverella, with the help of an overthrow at third base, for the walk-off win. Kromar received the shaving cream treatment in the post-game mob.
It made a winner of Langway, who struck out nine in a three-hit performance.
"We played a good game defensively, we didn't hit as a team at all but we got a big home run early from Billy, and Chiv got on with a hit late and used his speed to score on Kromar's winning hit. Credit the Rays for playing a good game, they're a good group of guys," Braves Coach Zach Vegh said.
Brave New World
The Braves, runners up in the 18 National Division last season, are not just putting their new Premier Division on notice. They're doing it with eye-popping numbers:
- Alpha's +72 run differential outpaces the next best differential by 15 runs, and even after this squeaker they're winning on average by eight runs per game.
- Ace pitcher Langworthy (6-0) has allowed just three earned runs in 38 innings, good for a 0.71 ERA, including three complete-game shutouts. Only three teams have more wins than Langway.
- Five Braves have homeruns, led by two each from Eric Drzewiecki and Oertel, who are among eight Braves batting .500 or better.
- The lead that Oertel's homer erased was only the second deficit the Braves faced all season.
Three of Alpha's 11 remaining games are against the defending champion DM Palmisano Sanitation Rangers, and two are against the runner-up UMB Pirates.
"We have the toughest part of our schedule coming up so we'll see what we're made of. If we can hit consistently as a team like earlier in the year," Coach Vegh said, "we're going to be tough to stop."
Rays of Hope
It didn't take long for the Rays to put last season behind them, with a doubleheader sweep to open the season.
Another doubleheader sweep two weeks later leapfrogged the Rays over last year's win total.
With the defending champions and the runners up appearing on the schedule only once more each, the Rays are poised to be in contention until the end.
As hard as it would have been to predict just a few weeks ago, the Rays-Braves contest that closes the regular season could be a championship preview.
Dylan Sapir applies the tag to a baserunner who slipped in extra innings.
A throw gets away at third base in the bottom of the final inning in a tie game.
Anthony Ciaverella grins as he approaches the plate for the game-ending run.