LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — For the first time in 19 starts this season, Matt Fox, the lone PawSox ambassador to the 2011 Triple-A All-Star Game, made it through a full seven innings Sunday afternoon.
Every segment after that constituted a long-awaited combination of a package, wrapping paper and a radiant bow addressed to his relievers. Fox upped his pitch count from 79 to 90 as he tossed a 1-2-3 eighth, then returned to the mound for a nimble ninth that ended with Brandon Hicks stranded on first base and the Sox victorious over the Gwinnett Braves, 5-0, at Coolray Field.
“Our bullpen’s been throwing a lot recently,” said Fox. “So I thought, ‘They’re going to give me every opportunity to try to finish the game’ and they did. It was good to give the bullpen the day off.”
Dating back to a 13-3 shellacking at the hands of the Durham Bulls July 16, the PawSox are now on a five-game winning streak when Fox starts. He has claimed credit for three of those wins, including each of the last two, and finished with pitch count no lower than 90 and no higher than 99.
“He was very efficient today,” said manager Arnie Beyeler. “He gave himself an opportunity to throw the complete game today. He got some quick outs, really mixed his pitches well and worked ahead in the count. He also had some really good defense behind him.”
Fox finished Sunday having thrown 99 pitches, a whopping 71 of them for strikes. He allowed merely four baserunners, authorizing two hits, doling out one walk and watching Jeff Fiorentino reach first on a fielding error by first baseman Lars Anderson.
On the other side of the ball, nearly every batter contributed to the relatively quick demise of Braves starting southpaw, Yohan Flande. Flande was forked out in favor of Ben Swaggerty with men on and nobody out in the sixth.
By that point, six different players had combined for seven hits. Of the three who haven’t hit off of Flande, Ryan Lavarnway walked and reached base on an error while Ryan Kalish drove in a run on a sacrifice fly.
Daniel Nava set the tone for a fruitful second inning with a leadoff home run to left-center. Brett Carroll and Hector Luna followed up with a double and single, respectively, to left field. Nate Spears’ sacrifice fly to the right-field warning track scored Carroll from third, augmenting the edge to 2-0.
The Sox ran on a similar sugar rush in the fourth inning, once again nailing three hits in succession and cultivating two more runs. After Spears and Jose Iglesias each batted their way on, Che-Hsuan Lin sent an opposite-field single to right, scoring Spears from second and sending Iglesias to third for a 3-0 lead in the fourth.
Following up on that, Kalish’s sacrifice fly sent Gwinnett right fielder Stefan Gartrell far enough on the run to score Iglesias for a 4-0 lead.
After Swaggerty came on in the sixth, Kalish likewise drove in the fifth run on a sacrifice to left that sent Spears home from third.
“We’ve had a lot of team efforts,” said Beyler off his more-balanced-than-star-studded offense. “We haven’t been tearing the cover off the ball, but we ran the bases well to get ourselves in position and our batters executed.”
Three Gwinnett relievers instantaneously stifled the Pawtucket bat rack. Swaggerty, J.J. Hoover and Dustin Richardson combined to allow only one hit (a single by Anderson) in four full innings-pitched.
But the damage was already done and it was on Fox and Co. to keep things status quo. Spears, who hit 2-for-2 off of Flande and turned both of his hits into runs, pointed to Fox after the game and proclaimed, “This is the man right here. He got the job done, not me. He put up a zero every inning. It was a great team win.”
After the Sox had finished scoring, Fox went out and tossed three straight 1-2-3 innings. The nine unanswered outs included a popup, only one fly ball into the outfield, five grounders and two strikeouts.
In the ninth, Hicks deposited a one-out single to right field. But Kalish caught a fly by Stefan Gartrell and a liner by Mauro Gomez to polish off the gem.
“It was fun,” said Fox. “I had good defense behind me, I was able to get ahead of each batter, Lavarnway called a good game, he just rolled with it.
“They’re a good-hitting team, but I feel like I got ahead of them a good amount and tried to put them away.”
With the win, the PawSox are assured of at least a split in this four-game set, which concludes Monday night. Accordingly, the G-Braves, who are similarly jockeying for either the wild card or their respective division, cannot finish the series any closer to Pawtucket on the I.L. leaderboard than they were on Friday.
But with a win Monday, and in turn a series win, the Sox can significantly broaden the gap from its original 1.5 to 3.5 games.
Not that Beyeler is letting himself or his pupils get wrapped up in those secondary effects just yet.
“We’ve got 30 games left, or something like that,” he said. “We’ve got to show up to play the rest of the season and just keep playing good baseball and the rest of that stuff will take care of itself.”