WOODBRIDGE Another sellout crowd lured to the ballpark by a post-holiday fireworks show witnessed something even more exciting from the Potomac Cannons Saturday night.
Finally hitting their stride after a tumultuous and ultimately forgettable first half, the Cannons continued to perform like an aspiring playoff team with a 6-3 victory over the Salem Avalanche in the opener of a weekend series.
With 5,908 jazzed up fans giving Pfitzner Stadium a postseason atmosphere, the Cannons responded with the type of game they’ve come to expect from themselves. Johnny Hernandez extended his club-high 13-game winning streak with an RBI triple in the first inning and the Cannons turned another quick start into their fourth straight win.
“It’s fun. Winning is fun,” Cannons manager Joe Cunningham said. “There is nothing any better than winning.”
On a night when the Cannons found out that Cardinals pitcher Andy Benes would make a rehabilitation start here on Monday, they put a season-high winning streak into the capable hands of prospect Dan Haren and watched him work some big-league magic.
“He’s got great stuff. He’s a quality pitcher and he goes right after hitters,” Cunningham said.
Haren, a highly-touted 20-year-old who has more than lived up to his reputation as a second-round draft pick, held the Avalanche to one run on four hits through the first seven innings. He wound up allowing three runs in 7 1/3 innings before finally being lifted to a loud ovation after Salem loaded the bases in the eighth.
He struck out five and did not issue a walk in a brilliant 77-pitch outing to improve to 2-1 with the Cannons.
“He was locating his fastball and throwing his [splitter] and slider for strikes,” catcher Ryan Hamill said. “He goes out and throws strikes and challenges hitters.”
A year after earning West Coast Conference player of the year honors at Pepperdine, Haren went 7-3 with a 1.95 ERA at low-Class A Peoria before earning a midseason promotion to Potomac. He allowed seven runs only three of them earned in his first 23 innings and began the night with a 1.17 ERA.
The Avalanche collected 10 total hits and got the leadoff batter on base six times, but the Southern Division leaders couldn’t put anything together against Haren until the eighth when they trimmed a 5-1 deficit to just two runs.
Cristian Berroa singled to drive in Bryan Peck in the fifth and Cory Sullivan’s two-run base hit up the middle in the eighth put some drama into the final two innings. Sullivan’s only hit of the night nearly got Salem starter Chris Buglovsky off the hook, but Kevin Sprague came out of the pen to retire Jorge Piedra on a pop up and then struck out the Carolina League’s best hitter, Brad Hawpe with the potential tying runs on base to end the eighth.
“Those were the two biggest outs of the game right there,” Cunningham said. “He got their two best hitters outs. We found out what he’s made of. He showed me a lot.”
With a base open, the Cannons had the option of walking Hawpe, a three-time league player of the week who was hitting .385 with 14 homers and 61 RBIs.
“Joe has confidence in our pitchers,” Hamill said. “I looked at him and he gave me the sign to go after him so we did.”
Third baseman Al Rodgers threw a runner out at the plate in the ninth and Jeremy Cook used that terrific play to toss a scoreless inning and earn his fifth save.
“The clubhouse is totally different than it was in the first half,” Hamill said. “It’s a 180 degree turnaround. People are doing their jobs, making great plays and our pitching’s been phenomenal.”
The Avalanche have also relied on pitching. They have two starters ranked among the league leaders with nine victories, but Buglovsky is statistically the best starter. He’s also no stranger to the Cannons. He’d faced them twice in the first half, going 1-1 with modest success. A wiry, hard-throwing right-hander who leads the Avalanche with a 2.95 ERA, Buglovsky had allowed more than three runs on only two occasions prior to Saturday night.
He wasn’t nearly that effective this time around. The Rockies chose the 22-year-old with their third-round draft pick two summers ago and he won eight games at low-Class A Asheville in 2001. He was looking for his eighth Carolina League win when he took the hill to face the Cannons.
But one night after they routed the Myrtle Beach Pelicans 8-0 to complete their first series sweep of the season, the Cannons struck for a pair of runs in each of the first two innings and improved to 10-7 the first time the club has been three-games over .500 all year.
Skip Schumaker singled with one out in the first inning and then Hernandez, who has 20 hits in his past 13 starts, ripped a line drive into right field. He turned it into a run-scoring triple and scored when Hawpe misplayed a Jeremy Luster grounder at first base.
The Cannons built a 4-0 lead in their next at-bat. Designated hitter Aaron Fera extended his hitting streak to a season-high seven games with a base right into left field and sprinted to third when Rodgers sliced a base hit into right field. Fera, who is batting .276, scored on a wild pitch and Rodgers came around when Christopher Morris surprised the Avalanche with a two-out bunt single.
Hamill, in his first start of the homestand, singled to drive in a fifth-inning run, went 2 for 4 overall and threw out Casey Lambert on an attempted steal in the sixth. He also doubled and scored an insurance run on a wild pitch in the eighth as the Cannons celebrated their best stretch of baseball of the season.
“We’re not really talking playoffs,” Hamill said. “We’re just trying to win games.”
SCATTERED BLASTS: Salem reliever Ryan Speier, who played college baseball at Radford University and hails from nearby Springfield, had a fan club of about 40 friends and relatives in attendance. He pitched the eighth inning, allowing an unearned run on one hit.