After a record-setting season, the Hickory Crawdads turned their attention to the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs Wednesday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. The Crawdads got strong pitching and put together just enough offense to outlast the Delmarva (Maryland) Shorebirds by a 4-3 final in Game 1 of the best-of-three series.
A crowd of 2,094 fans saw Hickory claim its first win in a first-round series opener since 2004 when it defeated Charleston (West Virginia) as part of a 2-0 sweep. While both Hickory (83-52) and Delmarva (90-48) completed their best records in the respective clubs’ history, it is the Crawdads that are on the verge of advancing to their second championship series in five seasons.
The game featured the top two pitching staffs in the SAL, but both starters were rocked in the first inning.
Delmarva got started quickly as it punched in the first run after one out. Johnny Rizer (2-for-5) found a hole with a ground ball single. Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles this summer, caught a 95 mph fastball from Ricky Vanasco and ripped it into the left-field corner to score Rizer. Rutschman advanced to third on a grounder and scored on Shayne Fontana’s first of three hits on the night.
Ending the season as one of the top offensive teams in the SAL, the Crawdads had only four hits on Wednesday, but they put three of them together in the first to take the lead for good. With one out, Jax Biggers pulled a liner into an exaggerated shift and found a hole among three fielders for a double to right. Josh Jung, the Texas Rangers' first-round pick this summer, fought out of an 0-2 hole and pulled a 96 mph fastball from Grayson Rodriguez to the left-field corner that scored Biggers. Pedro Gonzalez joined Jung on the bases with a walk before a wild pitch moved runners to second and third.
Miguel Aparicio then followed with the key at-bat of the inning. Down 0-2, Aparicio worked the count full before slicing the 10th pitch to left for a two-run double to put Hickory ahead 3-2.
“I was a little bit late,” said Aparicio of the first two pitches. “So I was seeing the pitches and trying to stay closed and looking for the one pitch in the zone. I was fighting and finally got a pitch to hit the other way.”
Crawdads manager Matt Hagen said Aparicio’s two-strike approach has been better than in previous seasons.
“He’s got the ability to turn that on,” said Hagen. “When he does, he’s a game changer. He battled tonight and was not going to give in. He got a hitters' pitch and put a really good swing on it.”
The score stayed there until the sixth, as both starters settled into a groove. Rodriguez, the Orioles' first-round pick in 2018, allowed just two other hitters to reach in getting through the sixth. The powerful right-hander struck out six and allowed all four hits.
However, a mistake in the sixth turned out to be the difference in the game. Facing Tyreque Reed, Rodriguez got ahead 1-2 after getting the hitter to swing through a breaking ball. One pitch later, Rodriguez left a 96 mph fastball over the plate and Reed swatted it off the batter’s eye in center for a solo homer to make it 4-2.
“Tyreque did what he does,” said Hagen of Reed, who has hit 13 homers for Hickory since joining the team in late June. “If you make one mistake to him, he’s going to make you pay.”
Reed said he was surprised that he got a fastball at that point of the at-bat.
“I was definitely surprised after the previous two at-bats,” said Reed. "They were throwing me sliders, curveballs and changeups all the time. But I stayed with my approach and they gave me a fastball and I did well with it.”
It was then left for the Crawdads' pitching staff to make the lead stand up. However, it was not without tense moments. Vanasco threw the first six innings, allowing the two runs on six hits and two walks with seven strikeouts. Promoted from short-season Spokane in mid-August, the 19-year-old right-hander worked out of trouble much of the night. Delmarva pushed runners to third in the third and fourth, and then runners to second and third in the sixth. However, Vanasco was able to work out of trouble and ended his night with a strikeout of Seamus Curran. The Shorebirds put runners on in seven innings and stranded eight.
“I just trusted my fastball,” Vanasco said. “It’s been amazing for me this year. It’s carried through me through my career to help me get where I am today. … I had to compete for my team and keep fighting for them.”
Nick Snyder picked up for Hickory in the seventh and worked around a double with two outs. Delmarva crept closer with an RBI single from Ryne Ogren in the eighth, but closer Kelvin Gonzalez pumped a barrage of upper-90s fastballs to strike out two in the ninth before getting Rizer to ground out to second to end the game.
The teams resume the series Friday night at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury, Maryland. If necessary, the finale of the best-of-three series is scheduled for Saturday. Both game times are at 7:05 p.m.