By Christian De Guzman
Three runs in the bottom of the eighth inning gave the Syracuse Salt Cats a 3-2 lead over the Syracuse Spartans. The Salt Cats would go on to win by that score as the bullpen of the Spartans could not back up a spectacular start from Lucas Gregory.
The Spartans started the scoring in top of the first inning. With shortstop Jack Paulson on second base and right fielder Robert Ballinger on first, third baseman Hunter Tralli rifled a ball into the left field corner for a two out double. That extra-base hit scored Paulson and gave the Spartans an early 1-0 lead.
The second Spartan run scored in the third inning. With Ballinger now on third and catcher Edison Mercado at first, Tralli once again came to the plate in a RBI situation. The third baseman delivered yet again with a single into left field. Ballinger scored easily to give the Spartans a 2-0 cushion.
A two-run lead is all that Lucas Gregory seemed to need on the mound, as the left-handed ace for the Spartans crafted another spectacular performance. He struck out eight Salt Cat batters over seven strong innings and did not allow a run to cross the plate. Gregory’s outing earned him Spartans Player of the Game honors.
“My breaking ball was definitely there today,” said Gregory. “I was able to keep hitters off-balance, and that’s literally the key when you’re pitching.”
That all changed in the eighth inning, as Dillan Wilkinson came on in relief of Gregory, and the lefty struggled out of the bullpen. Two walks and a single loaded the bases for the Salt Cats with only one out. Spartans Head Coach James Williamson decided to take the ball from Wilkinson and entrust Spartans closer Rich Marshall with a five-out save. The first batter up against Marshall was Salt Cat second baseman Xander Ferlenda. He grounded a ball to the left side of the infield that neither third baseman Britton Lawrence or Paulson could pick up in time for an out. Salt Cat first baseman Tim Gorton scored, and the Spartan lead was cut to 2-1.
With the bases still loaded and with one out, Salt Cat third baseman Jack McCarty came to the plate. On a 2-2 count, McCarty chopped a ball weakly back to the mound. Marshall scooped up the ball and threw home, but Mercado fumbled the throw and failed to catch the ball. Salt Cat shortstop Fausto Lopez scored to tie the game at 2-2.
The very next pitch was to Salt Cat catcher Shannon Baker, with the bases still loaded and only one out. He lifted a ball into deep left field. Micah Riddick made the catch, but Salt Cat right fielder Cory Krolikowski tagged and scored to give the Salt Cats a 3-2 lead.
The Spartans did not go quietly in the top of the ninth, however. Paulson singled to lead off the inning, and advanced to second on Riddick’s sacrifice bunt. Paulson would reach third on a groundout by Ballinger, and Mercado walked to put runners on the corners with two outs. Coach Williamson sent Chris Schad to pinch-hit, but Salt Cat closer Kyle Naugle got Schad to swing at strike three to end the ball game.
The Spartans could not capitalize on Gregory fantastic performance on the mound, as he continues to pitch well against the Salt Cats. In two starts, the lefty has thrown 16 innings and struck out 13 batters.
“He did a good job getting ahead in the counts,” said Coach Williamson.
While Gregory pitched well, the usually strong bullpen of the Spartans faltered against the Salt Cats. Wilkinson and Marshall gave up three runs on two hits and two walks in only one inning of work.
The Spartan offense went quite after the first three innings against the Salt Cats as well. Salt Cat pitchers Thomas Beliveau, David Brown, and Naugle only gave up 2 hits over the last six innings against the Spartans.
“We lost our approach to sustaining pressure as an offense,” said Coach Williamson.
Hunter Tralli added two RBIs during Friday’s game to increase his season total to seven. He is currently fourth in the Spartans organization in terms of RBIs. Ballinger continues to swing a hot bat at the plate. He is currently 8-for-21 over the past six games. Paulson went 1-for-2 on Friday to increase hit batting average to .302, which currently leads the Spartans.
The Spartans drop to 10-9 on the season, while the Salt Cats improve to 12-10. The Spartans continue this five-game road trip on Saturday with a game against West Division opponent Rochester. The next home game for the Spartans is a doubleheader against the Rome Generals on Wednesday, July 5th. It’s ALS Fundraising day, as the Spartans look to raise money to support ALS research. First pitch for game one is scheduled for 2:15 p.m.