By Chris Hirons
BETHESDA, Md. — When Ryan Metz (Virginia Tech) was called in from the Bethesda Big Train’s bullpen in the top of the eighth he had one job: Keep the Big Train’s deficit at one. When he trotted out from the dugout for his second inning of work, his task turned into preserving the Big Train’s two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth.
In both instances, Metz finished the job. He punched out six of the seven hitters he faced and locked down the 9-7 win for Bethesda against the DC Grays on Sunday night.
In the DC Grays' dugout, it was deja vu all over again. The Grays’ bullpen surrendered another lead, the bats went cold after a hot start - and this one, with a big lead against the first place team, might have been the biggest heartbreaker of them all.
DC (5-12) was in a position to steal a win from Bethesda (15-3), who has been nearly unbeatable all season. The offense was scorching hot — in the first three innings at least — and Joseph O’Connell (Harvard), who has struggled out of the bullpen this year, worked 2 ⅓ scoreless after relieving Tucker Alch (Catholic) with runners on the corners in the fifth inning.
Donovan Freyer (Shorter) was called onto pitch the eighth, and the Grays, who were clinging to a one-run lead, needed him to throw his third consecutive scoreless inning since he arrived in DC earlier this week. Unfortunately, Freyer struggled in his ⅔ innings of work, allowed a game-tying home run to leadoff the eighth inning. He later issued three walks.
When he was pulled, Freyer walked off the mound in obvious frustration as Frank Craska (Lafayette) jogged in from the right field bullpen. Craska, who played with the Grays in 2019, has been one of manager Reggie Terry’s most trusted arms out of the ‘pen this year. He’s Terry’s fireman and, when he entered in the ninth, the bases were already ablaze.
It’s a situation that Craska hasn’t been used to this season. Typically, the six-foot-two right hander is called on at the beginning of innings with a fresh start. He hasn't been used in relief in the middle of an inning unless it was an emergency. But on Sunday night, it was an emergency.
To Danny Neri (Notre Dame), the first batter he faced, Craska worked a full count but walked Neri on a pitch that looked in the strike zone from the stands. And then the bad luck began to spiral. Grant Knipp (Alabama) roped a line drive that bounced off of Craska’s glove. Craska stood for a moment with a look of shock on his face, and chased down the baseball that stopped rolling on the grass between first and second base as the runner pulled into first with an RBI single.
Craska struck the next batter out on four pitches, but the damage was done and the Grays went into the ninth trailing by two. The crowd was as loud as it had been all night when the Big Train ran out onto the field for the bottom of the ninth.
Yet, long before the bullpen coughed up the lead, it was almost noiseless. All 534 Big Train fans were stunned that the Grays, who had struggled to move runners on base for a good chunk of the season, were doing just that — in the Big Train’s ballpark no less. The Grays put up a heap of runs in the first three innings, highlighted by Tanner Sagouspe’s (Cal Poly) three-run triple in a five-run third inning.
If all of his previous starts were an indication, the seven runs the offense scored would be all the run support Alch needed as he went back out for the bottom of the third inning. Before the Grays’ big third inning, Alch had just worked his 16th consecutive scoreless inning.
His scoreless streak would last two more outs when he gave up his first run of the year in the third, and then allowed three more in the fourth. More trouble brewed in the fifth when Terry sent Alch back out to toe the rubber. He would last just ⅔ of an inning more, giving up his fifth and sixth runs, before being pulled for the likes of O’Connell, who finished the inning two batters later with DC’s lead still intact.
But the DC offense died down after its outburst in the first third of the night; it put just seven out of its last 25 hitters on base in the last six innings. The Grays picked up six hits in the first three innings and just two over the course of the final six.
It’s been an eerily similar story seemingly every night for the Grays: Pound the opposing starting pitcher for runs in the early innings, stop the timely hits once the starter was pulled, hold the lead until the middle innings, and then cough it up.
And they coughed it up once again. Sunday’s loss marked the ninth time in 12 losses that the Grays had lost by two or fewer runs. Had they won, say five of those games, they’d be sitting in second place, half a game up on the third place team.
The Grays’ record doesn’t tell their whole season's story. They’ve been so close to connecting the dots all season long.
In the top of the sixth, Patrick Vandenbergh (Lafayette) led off the inning with a single, and Cam Bufford (Grambling) followed that up with a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt to the left side of the mound. The Grays were in prime position to add to their slim 7-6 lead. But, like how the rest of the season has gone, the timely hit in the middle-to-late innings never came. Burke Camper (Towson) grounded out but moved Vandenbergh to third, Jared Sprague-Lott (Richmond) walked to put runners on the corners with two outs, and finally Sagouspe flew out to right field to end the threat. The Big Train’s relievers kept Bethesda’s slim deficit it faced intact.
And that was the difference on Sunday night.
On Monday, the Grays travel to South County High School to resume the suspended game against the South County Braves from June 8. The game will resume at 7:00pm with the Grays leading 3-0 in the fourth inning.