By KIPP HANLEY
WOODBRIDGE — Nate Cotton has not had a very fun week.
After pitching just one inning in a brief callup to Double-A Chattanooga last Sunday, the normally automatic Potomac closer was knocked around for three runs in his first outing back to Pfitzner Stadium as the Kinston Indians won 5-4 on Thursday.
With Kinston trailing 3-2 in the ninth, the Indians loaded the bases off Cotton and right fielder J.J. Sherrill smoked a two-run ground-rule double to right field. Luis Cotto then beat out a potential inning-ending double play on a grounder to second base to make the score 5-3.
Potomac third baseman Edwin Encarnacion homered with two outs off Kinston closer Lee Gronkiewicz to slice the deficit to one run. However, catcher Jesse Gutierrez lined out to shortstop Ivan Ochoa to end the game and Gronkiewicz had his 25th save.
With the win, the Indians (17-14) took three out of four games from the Cannons (16-15), who move on to play the Frederick Keys on Friday.
”I don’t have any answer for it,” said a disgusted Cotton. ”No excuses, I just didn’t get the job done.”
Cannons manager Jayhawk Owens said it might have been the quick turnaround from Double-A that may have thrown off Cotton on Thursday. Cotton has 21 saves for the Cannons in 2003, second in the league behind Gronkiewicz.
”With this being the first time back from Double A, he hadn’t been in a game situation for awhile,” Owens said. ”His accuracy was definitely off.”
Unfortunately for Cotton, Owens comments were entirely accurate. The right-handed sidearmer gave up three hits and hit two batters in the ninth, including left fielder Dennis Malave, who was trying to bunt and was down in the count 0-2.
”Those are the tough ones, when you’re ahead the whole game,” Owens said. ”They’re harder to swallow when you lead the whole game and right at the end, it gets taken from you.”
The Cannons looked like they would win the game after first baseman Tony Blanco smoked a solo home run to center field off Kinston reliever Chris Cooper in the bottom of the eighth that gave Potomac a 3-2 lead. Blanco, like the Cannons’ entire offense, has been red-hot. In his past 10 games, Blanco was hitting .333 with nine runs scored and five RBI.
But Kinston battled back as Willy Taveras and Matthew Knox hit back-to-back singles and Miguel Quintana was plunked to load the bases. After catcher Dave Wallace struck out looking, the left-handed Sherrill sliced a 2-1 offering over Bryan Anderson’s head in left field. The ball caromed off the warning track and over the fence
”He had pretty good movement [on his fastball],” said Sherrill, who went 2 for 4 with a run scored and two RBI. ”I just had to be patient and stick with my game plan. I just wanted to get one in the air and get the runner home from third base.”
The Cannons bullpen meltdown also included Kyle Edens in the eighth inning. With the Cannons leading 2-1, Sherrill greeted Edens with a single to right to start the frame. After Dennis Malave popped up an attempted sacrifice bunt to catcher Jesse Gutierrez, Luis Cotto hit a sharp grounder that rolled right underneath first baseman Tony Blanco’s glove.
Sherrill sprinted safely to third but right fielder B.J. Hawes gunned down Cotto, who was trying to go to second on the play. Ochoa then lined a single just over the glove of second baseman William Bergolla to score Sherrill.
Starter Ty Howington made another impressive start on Thursday, giving up just one run on three hits in seven innings of work. In his past six starts, the southpaw has limited foes to just nine runs while striking out 39. It was the second dominant performance against Kinston by Howington. On July 1, he struck out 10 and gave up just two hits in a six-inning no-decision.
He also helped himself with a defensive gem in the seventh inning. With two outs and the speedy Taveras at first, catcher David Wallace ripped a ball up the middle that somehow found Howington’s glove. Howington flinched when the ball hit the mitt, but he held on and got out of the inning unscathed.
Kinston starter Victor Kleine went seven innings, giving up two runs on eight hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
Potomac broke up a scoreless game in the bottom of the third inning on a walk and three infield base hits. Designated hitter Gary Patchett got a free pass to start the frame and moved to second on an infield hit to shortstop by Bergolla. After center fielder Chris Denorfia flied out to center, Encarnacion topped a ball just past Kleine that Ochoa couldn’t make a play on.
With the bases loaded, Gutierrez hit one in the hole to Ochoa, who tossed too late to get Encarnacion at second. Gutierrez’s hit scored Patchett.
The Cannons scored a single run in the fourth, as well, to take a 2-1 lead. Jeff Bannon singled and Anderson doubled ? both on first-pitch fastballs ? to start the inning. After Patchett struck out, Hawes lined a single into left, which plated Bannon. Anderson went home on the play and was thrown out by left fielder Dennis Malave.