Things had to fall the right way, beyond a mere win, for the Charlotte Knights in order for them to clinch their International League wild card over the Durham Bulls on Monday.
Durham had to lose, as both Charlotte and the Bulls winning would grant Durham the tiebreaker. Durham starting ace Tyler Glasnow presented another hurdle for Charlotte to have to get past, so to speak. You had the Knights on the road in Norfolk, facing a team by no means good (59-79), but relishing a role of spoiler. And finally, with Charlotte utterly stumbling to the finish line — less than a week ago in command of the wild card, with a four-game pad on Durham — sphincters had to be getting a bit tight in the Knights clubhouse.
Remarkably, Charlotte broke out to an early lead, 3-0 into the fifth and up 5-1 as late as the seventh. Meanwhile, Durham took on a five-spot in the fifth, falling behind 6-0 to the mighty Gwinnett Stripes, and never recovering.
Before the Knights game was over, the Bulls had lost. Charlotte knew for certain that its playoff destiny was in hand, and still it could not steer clear of a 7-6 loss in 10 innings.
But poor relief pitching (three earned runs from Matt Foster, who inherited a a three-run lead and squandered it, and one from José Ruiz, blowing the save) and awful defense (two tough errors for Danny Mendick at third base, on throws that Zack Collins could have (and should have) handled, saw Charlotte blow the bounty, and bow out of the 2019 season in ignominious fashion.
Three Knights have little cause for shame, however.
Nick Madrigal was brilliant, singling in all five of his plate appearances, driving in two runs. His defense was spectacular, including this incredible, heads-up play to peg a Norfolk Tides runner at third base:
KILLER backhand behind traffic from short, saving a run.— Brett Ballantini (@BrettBallantini) September 2, 2019
A+ PRO play sneaking the ball behind the runner at third (smart cover/quick tag by Danny Mendick).
Now 3-for-3 in a must-win game, two ribbies, team up 3-0.
Not a Nick fanboy but that is MONEY. https://t.co/kb5hs1GEYe
Yermín Mercedes was 3-for-4 with four RBIs, hitting a solo homer (his 23rd of the season and 17th with Charlotte) and an RBI double (19th of the season, 12th for Charlotte).
And finally, starter Dylan Covey was money. He made an error on a throw and chucked two wild pitches, but bowed his neck in this must-game: 6 2⁄3 innings, eight hits, two earned, a walk, three Ks. His ERA for his Triple-A season fell to 2.82.
But after Foster and Ruiz teamed up to let in four earned runs in the eighth, Charlotte saw its season slipping away, falling behind, 6-5.
But Charlotte rallied in the ninth, singles from Madrigal and Daniel Palka setting up a sacrifice fly from Mercedes to knot things up. (Mendick struck out to end the inning, stranding runners on second and third, missing out on a key chance to put the game away.)
Mendick was center stage in another rally kill in the 10th. He started the extra inning at second base, moving to third when Charlie Tilson’s sacrifice bunt turned into a inning-opening single. But Mendick broke for home on a grounder to second base and was gunned down for the inning’s first out. With two down and runners on first and second, Luis Robert took a juicy 1-2 pitch down the heart of the plate and turned it into an inning-ending force out at the keystone.
In the bottom of the 10th, the Tides spotted ex-White Sox José Rondón on second base, pushed to third on a sacrifice bunt. Tides second baseman Jack Reinheimer (ironically, a Charlotte native), who gunned down Mendick at home in the top of the inning, tapped a grounder to Ramon Torres at short. Torres’ misplay of a gift single scored Rondón for a Tides walk-off win.
Charlotte finished with a 75-64 record. With the 40-man roster full, absolutely do not expect merited call-ups of Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal. Although White Sox manager Ricky Renteria on Monday indicated there would be “not many” call-ups to the White Sox, plausible candidates include Ruiz, Thyago Vieira, Tilson, Palka, Covey, Collins and Seby Zavala.