By BRENDAN McGAIR
PAWTUCKET â€“ PawSox manager Gary DiSarcina didnâ€™t seem too worried about his teamâ€™s recent struggles when asked about them prior to Fridayâ€™s pivotal Game 3 of the Governorsâ€™ Cup finals against Durham.
Instead of pointing the finger at the players under his command, DiSarcina preferred to tip his cap to the opposing pitching staffs that Pawtucket has run into during this postseason quest to make it back-to-back Governorsâ€™ Cup titles. No matter how many bouquets of flowers wished to place at the feet of first-round foe Rochester and Durham, the fact remains that these PawSox hitters have been a deep slumber since the regular season ended on Labor Day.
Pawtucketâ€™s team batting average stood at a paltry .229 prior to Fridayâ€™s starting pitchers â€“ Matt Barnes for Pawtucket and Matt Buschmann for Durham â€“ taking the mound. It doesnâ€™t get much rosier, as the PawSox returned to the friendly confides of McCoy Stadium following a two-game sojourn to Durham Bulls Athletic Park that saw them produce a grand total of three runs on 11 hits.
Given whatâ€™s transpired, it shouldnâ€™t come as a shock to learn that the PawSox and Bulls played long into the night before the issue was settled. Two errors by Pawtucket in the top of the 14th inning enabled Durham to eke out a 2-0 victory in a game that didnâ€™t get over until 12:30 on Saturday and lasted five hours and 42 minutes.
The gameâ€™s lone run came about when Bills leadoff hitter Kevin Kiermaier galloped into third after Bryce Brentz had the ball go off his glove in right field. With one down, Cole Figueroa was awarded an intentional walk to set up a double-play possibility.
The PawSox got exactly what they were looking for, as Tim Beckham grounded sharply to second baseman Brock Holt. Instead of turning and throwing in the direction of shortstop Heiker Meneses, Holt saw that Kiermaier was breaking for home. Holt sent the ball in the direction of home plate. The only problem was that Pawtucket catcher Christian Vazquez was nowhere in the vicinity. He was on his way to provide coverage behind first baseman Mark Hamilton in the event from Meneses went awry.
For good measure, the Bulls added an insurance run on a force out.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how the Bulls moved to within one of the 2013 Governorsâ€™ Cup. Durham can wrap up the championship Saturday night. Durham will turn to Merrill Kelly while the PawSox hope knuckleballer Charlie Haeger can do his part in pushing the series to a fifth and decisive game.
Barnes and a crew of seven PawSox relievers certainly kept up their end of the bargain. Making his third Triple-A start and second of the Governorsâ€™ Cup playoffs, Barnes kept the Bulls off the scoreboard with 5.1 shutout innings, striking out seven while walking two.
Featuring a mid 90s fastball and a curveball that had the Durham hitters gasping at air, Barnes started his evening by striking out the side in the first before adding two more punchouts in the second. It was clear that this was not the same pitcher who allowed four runs in four innings against Rochester last weekend.
Innings 3-5 saw Barnes allow a base hit and a walk, but no damage was done. He retired the first batter he faced in the sixth before issuing a walk to Durham cleanup hitter Vince Belnome. The free pass spelled the end for Barnes, who ended up throwing 91 pitches, 55 of which were strikes.
While Pawtucketâ€™s pitching hummed along, the offense went about its business at a snailâ€™s pace. The home team was able to place two on with one out in the fifth inning, the result of a walk and hit by pitch. With the count 0-2 and Alex Hassan at the plate, DiSarcina called for a double steal that Justin Henry and Jonathan Diaz were able to execute.
It was up to Hassan to drive the two PawSox runners who had advanced into scoring position. The outfielder watched strike three zip right by him.
Pawtucket had another chance to break the scoreless deadlock in the eighth. Pinch runner Jeremy Hazelbaker got into scoring position with one out after stealing second. Hazelbaker then moved up another 90 feet after Durham reliever and Johnston native Jeff Beliveau was called for a balk.
With Hazelbaker dancing off third base, Beliveau struck out cleanup Mark Hamilton before blowing away Bryce Brentz on three pitches. Both Pawtucket hitters are batting below .200 in the playoffs.
All told, the PawSox ended up stranding 17 baserunners, three coming in the bottom of the 14th as the game ended with Brentz striking out with the bases loaded.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03