By DAVE UTNIK
WOODBRIDGE — The bases were loaded, nobody was out and Potomac Cannons starter Clayton Andrews was behind in the count again.
Not exactly the ideal scenario for a team trying to hang onto first place, especially when the hottest hitter in the Carolina League is standing in the batter’s box.
Jason Cooper doesn’t usually need that type of advantage to make something happen, but the Cannons played the role of gracious hosts Wednesday night and the Kinston Indians designated hitter came through with yet another big hit. This time it was a bases-loaded, first-inning double that bounced off the wall in straightaway center field — a three-RBI jolt of adrenaline that sent the K-Tribe on its way to a 9-3 victory in front of 1,525 fans at Pfitzner Stadium.
”In that situation he was trying to throw a strike, and I tried to be aggressive with the count in my favor. I was fortunate to get a fastball over the plate and I hit it where it was pitched,” said Cooper, a 2002 third round draft pick from Stanford who drove in five of Kinston’s nine runs. ”My intention was to score the runner from third at least. The other two runs were a bonus.”
Cooper has come up with plenty of bonus hits over the past few weeks. He collected his first Carolina League hit in his K-Tribe debut nearly a month ago and hasn’t cooled off in the least — coming up with at least one base knock in 21 of the Indians’ past 25 games.
With a 2 for 2 effort Wednesday, Cooper extended his hitting streak to 16 games — the third longest in the league this season. He is batting .335 since July 5 and .275 overall since receiving a promotion from low Class A Lake County on June 26.
”Since I’ve been here I’ve tried to set small goals for myself and go from there. Sometimes they are at-bat to at-bat and other times pitch to pitch,” said Cooper, who walked and scored in the third, singled in the fifth and hit sacrifice flies in the sixth and eighth.
Of course, Cooper isn’t the only Indian swinging a hot bat at the moment. The K-Tribe has scored 20 runs in the first three games of this series and the production has been widespread. The Indians combined for seven hits against Andrews (5-6), who yielded seven runs in five innings and lost his third straight decision.
Leadoff batter Ivan Ochoa went 2 for 5 and scored three runs, while center fielder Willie Taveras had two hits and scored twice. Catcher Armando Camacaro drove in two runs with a pair of sacrifice flies and first baseman Matthew Knox lined a two-run triple into right field in the third as the K-Tribe (16-14) moved to within a half game of first-place Salem in the Southern Division.
After scoring a season-high 14 runs against Kinston pitching on Tuesday, the Cannons came up with just two runs against Indians starter Travis Foley.
”Foley really mixed his pitches up well. He commanded his fastball in and out of the [strike] zone and expanded the zone when he needed to,” Cannons manager Jayhawk Owens said. ”They used up their bullpen [Tuesday] and there was some pressure for him to eat up some innings. He did what he needed to do.”
Foley, who lasted only three innings in his last outing against Potomac, allowed two runs on six hits and struck out three in six innings to beat the Cannons for the first time in three tries.
Potomac (16-14) scored an unearned run in the second and added single runs in the sixth and seventh. Tony Blanco doubled and scored on a two-out RBI single by Bryan Anderson in the sixth and then singled to drive in William Bergolla in the seventh.
That wasn’t enough to offset two errors and a wild night by the pitching staff as three Cannons hurlers hit three batters and combined for seven walks. Despite the loss, Potomac maintained a half-game lead over Frederick in the Northern Division. The Keys’ game at Myrtle Beach Wednesday was canceled due to rain.
”The walks took their toll,” Owens said. ”The errors and the walks will haunt you. You can’t give a team that many opportunities. Tonight was an example of what walks can do to you.”
SCATTERED BLAST: The Cannons filled out their 25-player roster on Wednesday by adding catcher Rafael Motooka. The 21-year-old signed with the Reds as a free agent in 2000 and spent the majority of this season at Billings in the rookie Pioneer League.