The Gnats' troubles began in the top of the first when the Drive scored twice off RHP Taylor Whitenton (pictured). The Drive, the most patient team in the league were a tough matchup for Whitenton, whose command was erratic. Sure enough, Friday night, he walked the leadoff batter. Whitenton was second in the SAL in the regular season with 68 walks issued. The Drive are a Red Sox affiliate and led the SAL in walks drawn in the regular season with 485. (Organizations like the A's and Red Sox both draft patient hitters and preach patience constantly. For reference, the Gnats were 11th in the 14-team SAL with 377 walks.) Whitenton then induced a hard-hit ball to shortstop that by all rights should have been a double-play. However, the ball took a late bad hop over the shoulder of Robbie Shields at short. I don't think there was anything Shields should have done differently on the play. The play was hit hard enough that he didn't really have time to charge it. Instead of two outs and no one on, Whitenton had to work around first and second with no outs. He struck out the third batter, 1B Reynaldo Rodriguez (more on him later) for the inning's first out.
Then we move on to another theme for Whitenton, which is related to command: finishing hitters. The 22-year old went to an 0-2 count against the clean up man, lanky 6'5" Drive 3B Michael Almanzar. He tried to finish him off with a fastball up and in, which Almanzar will often chase. However, Whitenton ran it too far inside and plunked Almanzar to load the bases with one out. Then, with the bases full, he got ahead of Sox first-round pick Kolbrin Vitek 1-2, before losing him to a walk to force in the game's first run. The next batter, speedy Drive CF Reymond Fuentes bounced one up the middle. Shields fielded the ball behind the second base bag and shoveled it to 2B Luis Nieves, who caught it with his back to home plate, and then spun and fired the ball on one hop to first where 1B Travis Ozga made the pick. The first-base umpire ruled Fuentes safe. Ozga jumped up and down in disbelief. Gnats manager Pedro Lopez argued briefly, but the call stood and the Drive had a 2-0 lead. I thought Fuentes was out, but on this play, the reactions of Ozga who was at first, and his manager speak for themselves. That extra run mattered in a game that came down to one run.
Gnats catcher Albert Cordero ended the top of the first by picking Fuentes off first. The 20-year-old Cordero who spent most of the year with Kingsport, started on Labor Day in the final game of the regular season and made just his second Gnats start in game two, an elimination game. Cordero hit .277/.306/.466 in 54 games for Kingsport with 11 doubles and eight home runs. He's a little pudgy physically, but a really nice receiver with soft hands and with an average or slightly better arm that plays up because he's exceptionally accurate. I actually really liked that Lopez went with Cordero in the starting lineup. It allowed Lopez to put his best defender behind the plate, and move C Juan Torres, who was hitting well as the season came to close, to the DH spot, where he was a better option than any of the other bench guys. I'm pretty sure that I'll have to find a spot for Cordero in my Top 41 prospects this winter.
The game remained 2-0 through three innings. The Gnats were having a tough time with Greenville RHP Chris Balcom-Miller's sinker/slider combo. The sinker was mostly 89-91 early, with some 88s by the fifth inning. In the fourth, with one out, 3B Aderlin Rodriguez blooped a single along the left-field line. He was a fooled on the pitch and hit it off the end of the bat, but made enough contact and was strong enough to drop the hit in. RF Cesar Puello followed with a walk. It was the first game back for Puello since August 14, nearly a month and I thought he looked a little jumpy, chasing breaking balls all night. The Mets pushed his rehab schedule to get Puello back from the playoffs, and he looked eager to make an impact. With two runners on, RF Cody Holliday laced a double into left-center chasing home Rodriguez and Puello to tie the game at 2-2. Left-handed batters are often coached against sinkerballers, who are trying to keep the ball away from them, to go to the opposite field gap. Holliday did it.
Whitenton could not keep the game tied for more than three batters. He worked ahead of catcher Christian Vazquez 0-2, and then gave up a double down the leftfield line. The Drive sacrificed him to third and brought him home with a sac fly for a 3-2 lead. Down 3-2 entering the fifth, Whitenton fell behind the leadoff hitter 2-0 before giving up another double. That brought up 24-year old Reynaldo Rodriguez. Rodriguez was 3-5 with two doubles and 3 RBI in game one. Originally a Yankees farmhand, the Sox signed him out of the Independent Golden Baseball League this year. Whitenton got ahead 0-2, then gave up a two-run home run that put the Drive ahead 5-2. I think he was trying to finish Rodriguez off with a fastball up, but it was not up enough.
Whoops. Listen here:
The home run ended Whitenton's night in favor of LHP Josh Edgin. Edgin, who the Mets drafted in the 30th round out of Francis Marion University this year, spent almost the entire year with Kingsport, before joining the Gnats in the final week of the regular season. He retired nine of the ten batters he faced, walking just one in the eighth. He was very effective for Savannah using a fastball that was 91-92, with a slider at 81-82 that he could turn into a softer offering around 77. I liked the 80 mph version better. I don't recall seeing a changeup out of him. A starter in college, I think Edgin has a chance to move quickly as a left-handed reliever. (I don't know how he could last until the 30th round with that kind of velocity, while guys who can't touch 90 are drafted in the top 10 rounds. One possible explanation: he didn't throw that hard as a starter in college, and his velo jumped in shorter outings as a professional.)
Edgin's good work gave Savannah a chance to play catchup. Aderlin Rodriguez began the eighth, with an infield single deep in the hole at short against junkballing reliever Tom Ebert. I thought the play could have been ruled an error, but a hometown hit is fine there too. Rodriguez finished Friday 3-4. In addition to his dinky base hits, he also drilled a line drive to right-center. Anyway, he singled, and Holliday walked to bring the tying run to the plate. With two outs, Cordero singled cleanly to center field, bring home Rodriguez to make it 5-3. (In very limited time watching him, I like his bat a little bit too). Fuentes made a dreadful throw to third that allowed Cordero to move up to second so the Gnats had the tying run at second with two outs. A wild pitch brought home Holliday and moved Cordero to third with the tying run, but Nieves bounced out softly to second to end the threat.
Again, in the ninth, the Gnats put the tying run on base. CF Matt den Dekker, in a two strike hole, slapped an infield hit deep in the hole at short to lead off the inning. With two strikes, the left-handed-hitting den Dekker really looks to poke it the other way. With den Dekker at first, Robbie Shields, who rode a seven-game hitting streak into the playoffs, and was the team's best hitter in the final month came to the plate. He was asked to bunt. He took the first two pitches outside to run the count to 2-0. I was hoping that the count, and situation would prompt Lopez to take the bunt off and let den Dekker try to steal second. Instead, Shields got the sacrifice down on the third pitch moving den Dekker up to second with the tying run. Ozga and Rodriguez then both popped out to shallow left to end the game and season with the tying run at second.
It was a very, very tough way to lose a game and end a season. It was still a fun season. The Mets SAL affiliate made the playoffs for the first time since Hagerstown in 2005. Savannah went to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
This probably could deserve its own post, but the team that went to the playoffs was not the team that won the first half. Of the nine position players who started game one, not a single one was on the Gnats' roster when the team clinched the First Half Championship on the final day of the half on June 20. Cesar Puello, who hit ninth on June 20th, and sixth in game two of the playoffs, was the only position player to see action in both the clinching game and the elimination game.