Down two runs heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, and facing the league-leader in saves — the practically unhittable Florence Freedom closer Jorge Marban — things looked mighty bleak for the Gateway Grizzlies, Saturday night at GCS Ballpark in Sauget.
But the team with the best record in the Frontier League so far, showed just why it is the team to beat in the West Division this year, with a dramatic three-run rally, sparked by a two-run, game-tying home run by pinch hitter Michael Pair, and later a game-winning single to center by right fielder Jet Butler, that lifted the Grizzlies to a thrilling 6-5 walkoff win over the Freedom.
Some of the 3,254 that paid to see it left before it ended, but most stayed, and were treated to a fantastic finish, as hot-hitting center fielder Antone DeJesus, who extended his team-high hitting streak to 12 games earlier in the evening, led off the night with a walk, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of catcher Matt Mirabal.
The backup catcher for the Grizzlies this season, Mirabal was making just his fourth start this season since signing with the club on May 28.
And even though Mirabal had a hit earlier in the game, and was boasting a .455 batting average, Gateway manager Phil Warren decided to use the pinch-hitter Pair because he generally packs more pop in his bat and gave the Grizzlies a chance to possibly tie the game with one swing of the bat.
And that’s exactly what Pair did on a 3-2 slider Marban left hanging over the plate, crushing it over the right field wall for a two-run shot that tied the score at 5.
Two batters later, Jose Flores walked, but was erased on a fielder’s choice, which put Chris McClendon on first with Gateway cleanup hitter Landon Hernandez coming to the plate with a chance to win the game.
Hernandez was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts on Saturday, but has been otherwise on fire in June, with 24 RBIs and six home runs this month, including two solo shots against Florence in the Grizzlies’ losing effort on Friday.
So it was only a slight surprise when Marban pitched around Hernandez to face Butler — the former Mississippi State standout, who was drafted by the New York Mets in 2010, and spent two seasons in the minors for that organization, before playing for the Rockford Riverhawks last year (now known as the Rockford Aviators) and joining the Grizzlies lineup this year.
Realizing that Marban was having trouble locating his pitches, and knowing the righthander from Miami wouldn’t want to face the next Gateway hitter and the Frontier League leader in home runs, Jon Myers, Butler pounced on the first pitch he saw and lifted a short fly ball into shallow center field.
No Freedom player could catch it, so it landed for a hit, allowing McClendon to race around third and score the Grizzlie victory.
The entire Gateway team, with players coming from the bench and the bullpen, stormed out onto the field to celebrate with McClendon and Butler.
Closer Richard Barrett (1-0) got credit for the win, as he was the pitcher of record when the Grizzlies rallied for the victory, while Marban (2-1) suffered his first loss and second blown save in 13 chances this season.
The victory raised Gateway’s season record to 25-11 — still the best mark in the Frontier League this season — and still three games better than the Schaumburg Boomers in West Division standings.
Florence had its four-game win streak snapped, and fell to 23-15, which is one game back of the Traverse City Beach Bums in the Frontier League East.
The two teams will play the third and final game of the series Sunday afternoon at GCS, with a pair of righthanders scheduled to start for their respective clubs.
Tucker Jensen (4-1, 1.63 ERA) will start for Gateway, while Jason Wilson (1-3, 4.50 ERA) will get the ball for Florence.
First pitch on Sunday is set for 3:05 p.m., with the Grizzlies celebrating Christian Family Day at the ballpark, and offering a free postgame concert to all fans in attendance, immediately following the end of the game, featuring up and coming, local Christian band All Things New.