Friday's New York-Penn League playoff contest at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen came to one swing of the bat, as Tri-City's Conrad Gregor belted an 0-1 pitch from IronBirds reliever Donnie Hart over the wall in right field for what would be the only run in a 1-0 ValleyCats victory.
Tri-City, which went 2-4 against the IronBirds in the regular season, goes up 1-0 in the best of three semifinal series, and Aberdeen, making its first postseason appearance in team history, must win the next two matchups of the best-of-three series, which moves to Tri-City on Saturday. That game will start at 7 p.m. at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, N.Y.
Prior to Gregor's solo shot, the pitching on both sides had been impeccable, with Tri-City's Michael Feliz and Aberdeen's Sebastian Vader both holding the opposition scoreless during their time on the mound. Feliz went seven innings, striking out eight and allowing three hits, while Vader went 8-1/3, striking out six and holding the ValleyCats to five hits. Neither starter surrendered a base on balls.
Hart came on to face Gregor in the top of the ninth, threw the Tri-City first baseman a fastball for a strike and then allowed the game-winning home on his next offering.
"I knew they were going to bring in that left-hander to face me," Gregor said in the visiting locker room as the ValleyCats prepared to head back home. "He threw me a fastball and got a strike, and I thought he might come with an off-speed pitch next. I waited on it, got the bat on the ball, and it just carried."
Both starters were perfect until the bottom of the third, when Aberdeen third baseman Federico Castagnini led off the inning by belting a full-count fastball from Feliz into left field for a single. Justin Viele followed by hitting into a fielder's choice, then swiped second base. With the game's first run sitting in scoring position, Feliz retired Manny Hernandez on a fly ball to center and then ended the inning by fanning leadoff man Mike Yastrzemski.
Vader showed his first crack the very next half inning, allowing a leadoff double to ValleyCats center fielder James Ramsay. Like Feliz, however, the IronBirds starter managed to work past the trouble, retiring the side on two groundouts and a sharp liner to Viele at second base.
Aberdeen designated hitter Jeff Kemp led off the home half of the fourth and blasted the first pitch he saw deep to left, but the ball hooked wide of the foul pole. Kemp eventually went down swinging, while the next two hitters, Trey Mancini and Conor Bierfeldt, were both retired on groundouts, ending the inning.
Tri-City's Ronnie Mitchell started the fifth with a deep drive toward the corner in right, but Hernandez ran down the liner before it could fall for extra bases. Vader needed just five more pitches to retire the side, striking out Brett Booth on three offerings, then getting Jon Kemmer on a groundout to Castagnini at third.
Aberdeen catcher Austin Wynns broke the trend set in the previous half innings, as he led off the bottom of the fifth with a long single down the line in right. Feliz, however, answered the call yet again, striking out Jared Breen, getting Castagnini on a fly to right, then escaping the inning with a strikeout of Hernandez.
Vader cruised in the top of the sixth, striking out Jake Rodriguez and Chan Moon in succession, then retiring Ramsay on a groundout to second.
Feliz answered his Aberdeen counterpart in the bottom half of the sixth with a three-up, three-down inning.
Vader's string of 10 straight batters retired ended in the top of the seventh, when Tyler White and Conrad Gregor connected for back-to-back, one-out singles. The IronBirds hurler managed to wriggle free again though, getting Mitchell and pinch hitter Yonathan Mejia on flyouts to Yastrzemski in center field.
In the bottom of the seventh, Feliz allowed a two-out single to Breen, but quickly ended the inning by inducing a groundout to short from Castagnini.
"Feliz did what he's been doing all season," Gregor said of his team's starter. "He's just a big-game pitcher. He's definitely one of the best pitchers in this league. He's got a bright future head of him."
The top of the eighth saw Vader in a spot of trouble again, as he allowed successive one-out singles, but he was able to record a swinging strikeout of Ramsay and an inning-ending grounder to Trey Mancini at first.
Feliz was pulled following the bottom of the seventh, and Tri-City reliever Chris Munnelly took over. After retiring the first two IronBirds he saw, Munnelly allowed a two-out single to Yastrzemski. The base hit was squandered, however, when Kemp's attempted bunt base hit went directly to the pitcher.
Vader came back out for the ninth inning, retired White on a fly ball to left and then was lifted by manager Matt Merullo in favor of Hart.
"He kept us off-balance all night," Gregor said of the IronBirds starter. "He mixed in that split-finger pitch really well with his fastball. We were hitting the ball all over the place, but it was right at people. Anyone who can toss eight innings and hold the other team scoreless at this level is a great pitcher."
"I did all I could," Vader said. "I probably pitched the best game I've pitched in my entire life. They got runners in scoring position, and I thought, 'they just can't score."
Tri-City's Gonzalo Sanudo came out and pitched the bottom of the ninth and allowed two hits before retiring the side to seal the victory for the ValleyCats.