PAWTUCKET — Prior to Sunday, the Pawtucket Red Sox had captured only two of 12 contests against North Division foe Lehigh Valley this season.
During that horrible slump, their hurlers had mustered a dismal ERA of 7.04, while their offense had contributed an equally horrendous collective batting average of .215.
In the third of this four-game set Sunday afternoon, Pawtucket would have its mettle tested for sure, as it would face talented Ethan Martin, who had been tied for second in International League wins with 11.
Martin pitched well, no question. But fellow righthander Steven Wright was even better in this intense pitchers’ duel. The 28-year-old native Californian, who had a no-hit bid through five, surrendered only four hits and a walk while fanning seven in a tremendous, complete-game outing.
With it, not to mention some timely offense in the bottom of the eighth, helped the PawSox clinch a superb 2-0 victory over the IronPigs before 7,130 at McCoy Stadium.
“I agree,” skipper Gary DiSarcina said when asked about how solid Wright, who converted to being a knuckleballer back in 2011. “To me, he just had his knuckler working in the zone. When he needed to throw fastball, he did for a strike, and his knuckleball was bouncing around.
“I also thought Rosie (backstop Alberto Rosario) did a great job back there,” he added. “He was getting strikes, and he was up early on in the counts, getting a lot of groundouts.”
Offered Wright, who improved to 5-6 (and lowered his ERA to 3.89): “This just shows the pluses and minuses of being a knuckleballer. One day you can get beaten down and the next everything is working. I was just trying to throw quality pitches for strikes.”
He needed only 96 deliveries in his gem.
The PawSox’ bats finally came through in the eighth against lefty reliever Cesar Jimenez. He walked Will Middlebrooks to start it, and he hustled to third on Mark Hamilton’s opposite-field, flared hit down the left-field line. Jimenez then intentionally-walked Alex Hassan to juice the bags, and Jeremy Hazelbaker’s sacrifice line drive to left plated Middlebrooks with the game-clincher.
With two down, Brock Holt’s soft single to right pushed in pinch-runner Jonathan Diaz from second.
Wright did yield Cody Asche a one-out double in the ninth, but struck out Cody Overbeck and Josh Fields to close it. In the process, he became the only Pawtucket pitcher to toss two complete-game shutouts this season.
Holt finished 2-for-4 with his RBI, while Xander Bogaerts went 2-for-4 and Hazelbaker 0-for-3 with his critical sacrifice liner.
The good news after the verdict: Even if host Rochester should rake out a win over Norfolk on Sunday night, Pawtucket (now 58-50) would still have a percentage point lead over the Red Wings for the top spot in the division.
Lehigh Valley fell to .500 (55-55).
Amazingly, Wright didn’t yield his first hit until the sixth, when No. 9 batter Tyson Gillies delivered a ground single up the middle. What followed thrilled not just the fans but Wright himself.
Leandro Castro had attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move Gillies up, but he popped it up between the mound and first-base line. Wright dove forward to make the grab, then threw to Alex Hassan at first to get Gillies by about five feet.
When asked what was better, the victory or “The Play,” the knuckleballer chuckled, “The catch, no doubt! I was a little frustrated because I gave up that first hit, and I saw Rosie call a fastball away. When the ball went up, I figured I was the only guy to get to it. Adrenaline just took over.”
After suffering two straight losses to the IronPigs (4-3 and 10-0), it seemed Pawtucket would jump out to an early lead in this one. In the back half of the first, Bradley Jr. beat out an infield single, then robbed second when Bogaerts struck out. Middlebrooks, however, grounded out to third before Ethan Martin whiffed Mark Hamilton.
Lehigh Valley initiated a threat in the top of the third when leadoff hitter Matt Tolbert walked and raced to third when shortstop Bogaerts failed to field a hard grounder to left. When Castro laced a grounder to Middlebrooks, he threw to Rosario, who eventually tagged Tolbert for the second out.
Freddy Galvis then bounded out to first to end the frame.
Despite that scary third inning, Wright continued to sail, as he had walked just one and fanned a trio through his first four. He also had yielded just one ball (outside of the miscue) to reach the outfield; that came on Overbeck’s lazy short fly to left in the fourth.
Pawtucket manufactured another opportunity to get on the board in the fifth. Martin, who had struck out both Holt and Rosario, then walked Bradley Jr. and yielded to Bogaerts a hard ground single between short and third.
The righthander, however, whiffed Middlebrooks.
The IronPigs did something in the top of the seventh they hadn’t previously; they roped two singles. With one down, Overbeck reached on a bad-hop grounder past Middlebrooks, and Derrick Mitchell knocked a low liner into left to push Overbeck to second.
But Wright got Tolbert to bounce to first to shut down that possible flurry.
In the bottom half, Holt ripped a hit to left, moved to second on Rosario’s sacrifice bunt and tagged to third after Bradley Jr.’s fly to the warning track to right.
Bogaerts, though, responded with a lazy pop to second.
EXTRA BASES: In the last game of this four-game set against the IronPigs, the PawSox will send righthander Rubby De La Rosa (3-2, 3,75) to the hill against righty Tyler Cloyd (2-8, 6.19).
Southpaw Franklin Morales (0-1, 7.71) will throw in relief, it was announced in the press box during the contest.
Not quite 24 hours later, at 7:05 p.m., Tuesday, Pawtucket will open a four-tilt series against Norfolk at McCoy Stadium; Charlie Haeger (2-2, 7.16) will face fellow righty Eddie Gamboa (0-2, 7.20).
The following matchups will include, on Wednesday at 12:05 p.m., righthander Allen Webster (5-3, 4.27) against lefty Tsuyoshi Wada; southpaw Chris Hernandez (3-8, 5.69) versus righthander Josh Stinson (5-5, 4.23); and Steven Wright against righty Kevin Gausman (0-2, 7.13).
Before Tuesday’s contest against the Tides, the PawSox’ wives and girlfriends will conduct a food drive entitled “Pasta and Protein Drive to Strike Out Hunger.” From 5:30-7:15 p.m., the ladies will be stationed by the park’s main entrance to collect pasta, tuna, peanut butter, etc.
Any fan bringing one or more items to them will receive a free autographed photo of a Sox player; all items will go directly to the Rhode Island Food Bank. That same game will serve as Ladies’ Night, and the club will dole out special giveaways and prizes throughout from various sponsors.
Before Wednesday’s matinee, fans ages 14 and under will receive a free book, one from the bestselling “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” series – while supplies last. Also, the first 3,000 fans 14 and younger will be given a Snoopy doll.
The following night is PawSox Team Poster Night; all fans will gain a huge team photo suitable for framing. Likewise, between 5-6 p.m., the fans will be allowed on the field to take photos of and receive autographs from their favorite Pawtucket players.