SALISBURY, Md. - Single-A Delmarva manager Kyle Moore didn’t worry when the Shorebirds offense was a little slow out of the gate Friday night in Game 2 of their South Atlantic League semifinal series against the Hickory Crawdads.
The way Gray Fenter was dealing gave the bats ample time to adjust and wake up.
“Our offense does that, has done that a lot,” Moore said. “They kind of feel them out the first three innings and so we usually beat teams in the fourth, fifth and sixth. So I wasn’t that surprised. ... I was a little surprised in the fourth, fifth, sixth that we didn’t get to him a bit. I thought we would definitely get to that guy.”
But after six innings, with Fenter breezing to a career-high 13 strikeouts and allowing just four singles, the Shorebirds were still looking for their first hit. Hickory righty Abdiel Mendoza faced the minimum through six, starting a 1-6-3 double play after he grazed Adam Hall with a pitch to lead off the fourth.
Zeros were a theme for the evening until the top of the 10th, when the Crawdads broke through on a bases-loaded safety squeeze by Jax Biggers to eke out a 1-0 victory and advance to the South Atlantic League championship series.
When it was done, Moore was caught a little by surprise by another thing: He hadn’t really prepared a postgame speech to mark the end of a season that produced 90 wins and the first playoff appearance by the Shorebirds since 2005.
“I didn’t have that speech ready,” he said. “I was kinda hoping for a different one.”
Three Hickory pitchers checked Delmarva on two hits, both by catcher Adley Rutschman. But the Shorebirds were unable to cobble together enough offense to extend the best-of-three series to a decisive third game.
Fenter, who went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA in 22 regular season games (17 starts), did his part, pitching aggressively from the onset. It wasn’t just the mid-90s heat that frustrated the Crawdads; he used the fastball to set up an effective changeup and curve. But for the most part, Fenter controlled both sides of the plate with his fastball. And the Crawdads were often overmatched.
“I had a really good feeling about tonight,” Fenter said. “A lot of energy. It helps when you have that adrenaline running and helps you carry through the ballgame.”
The right-hander fanned two hitters in the first, second and fifth innings, and struck out the side in the third and fourth. At one point, he fanned seven straight hitters.
He kept the Shorebirds in the game, even if he had precious little margin for error in a scoreless battle where neither team was able to generate much offense.
“At that point, you just do what you got to do,” Fenter said. “If I give up a few runs, I assume my boys can get a few on the board. We just happened not to hit the ball tonight. That happens. It’s baseball.”
Moore was most impressed not by Fenter’s fastball but by his assortment of off-speed stuff that kept the Crawdads guessing.
“The curveball’s always been there because his curveball’s been his best pitch - super sharp curveball. ... The slider’s something he’s just learned this year. Him and (pitching coach Justin Ramsey) have worked on that and done a great job,” Moore said. “The other thing, his fastball command was better the last three outings that it’s ever been. When he’s hopping that fastball at the bottom of the zone, those other two (pitches) really become factors.”
Rutschman was impressed with how Fenter used his fastball to get ahead in the count, something the Crawdads never quite adjusted to.
“It makes my job easier and I get to sit there and kind of enjoy the show,” Rutschman said. “He was on, he was lights-out with all his pitches. It was fun to be able to mix with him, be able to locate his fastball and just work off that.”
Oddly enough, Rutschman didn’t get a pregame hint of what was to come.
“From his bullpen, early before the game, you wouldn’t have guessed that he was going to be dotting balls in the game,” he said. “But that’s just the kind of person he is. He came out on the field and just worked it out for himself and was just able to control the game from the mound - the pace - and do what he wanted with every pitch he had.”
Once Fenter departed, righty Nick Roth escaped a seventh-inning jam to preserve the scoreless deadlock. Morgan McSweeney came on in his Delmarva debut to work two scoreless innings with four strikeouts. Righty Kade Strowd, like McSweeney making his first Shorebirds appearance after pitching for short-season Single-A Aberdeen, got in hot water in the 10th, walking the leadoff hitter and hitting a batter trying to bunt. After a wild pitch and a walk, Biggers dropped a perfect bunt in front of the mound and Strowd was unable to get to it quick enough to make a play at the plate, taking the out at first instead.