By Brendan Nordstrom
When batters face off against Orleans closer Sean Matson, they will scratch and claw for any way to get on base — it’s that much of a rarity.
Matson allowed no hits in his first six appearances, and every hit since has been by way of cheap contact or flukes.
That’s exactly what happened on Friday evening to put the Harvard right-hander in a jam with only a one-run advantage in the eighth inning.
The cheap contact led off the inning when Sam Peterson laid down a textbook ball to the left of the mound.
Then, Garrett Michel skied a ball to shallow left field, but it got lost in the lights, dropping for a single beside Colin Tuft.
With two on, no outs, only a 3-1 lead and a noisy hill at Eldredge Park, the game had flashes to the last time these two teams met — a 5-4 victory at Doran Park after unlucky bounces led to a late-game collapse.
But, as manager Kelly Nicholson said:
“Sean Matson is Sean Matson.”
First, catcher Henry Hunter helped the cause, delivering an absolute laser to third on an attempted double steal to catch Peterson by two or three steps.
“We needed it. It was good to be able to pick up the team in that moment,” Hunter said. “It’s awesome, awesome … It’s just awesome.”
Matson worked a strikeout and a groundout to escape the inning unscathed.
The Firebirds tacked on an insurance run in the bottom half. Then, Matson struck out the side in the ninth to earn a six-out save — his third of the summer.
Despite the competitive score, the Firebirds (13-13) looked to be in the driver’s seat for most of the contest, defeating Bourne 4-2 and taking the series lead over their cross-divisional opponent.
“Our pitchers battled all night long … The offense just did enough tonight, and some nights, that’s all you need,” Hunter said. “It was a fun one, that’s for sure.”
Tonight was also the last night of the summer Orleans ace Daniel Avitia toed the rubber in a Firebirds uniform. While it wasn’t his flashiest outing of the season — it’s hard to compete with a six-inning, one-hit performance against the top team in the division — it was a strong outing nonetheless.
“He just really gets the game of baseball,” Hunter said. “It’s been a blast. The dude is awesome to catch [for].”
The Grand Canyon pitcher started the game with a three-pitch strikeout, but center fielder Joshua Kuroda-Grauer bunted his way onto first. Kuroda-Grauer then advanced on a wild pitch before right fielder Kendall Diggs put a ball toward second base past a diving Jo Oyama to score the game’s first run.
Avitia struck out two more, utilizing his lethal changeup in the process, and picked off another across his 4.2 innings of work, allowing only the one run.
His summer ends with six starts on the bump, 24 strikeouts across 27.2 innings and a top-five ERA in the league at 1.63.
“We’re going to miss his four or five innings every start, his pitchability and his competitiveness on the mound,” Nicholson said. “He’s really good. We were fortunate to have him in Orleans this summer.”
Avitia set up the foundation for the bullpen to build upon in the remainder of the contest. Left-handed reliever Derek Clark followed, leaning on his off-speed. Clark recorded four outs in the contest, and all four came by way of the K — two forward and two backward.
However, Clark, in his competitive spirit, was more focused on the two walks he gave up, which were both dealt in full counts.
“I thought I had them beat,” the West Virginia transfer said. “Just keeping the same mindset: attack the zone, go at guys.”
It’s a competitive mindset that Clark has displayed all summer. Nicholson has mentioned times when Clark has said he could come in the game to make a big out when the team is in a jam. It’s exactly what he did on Tuesday against Brewster with two on and two outs, entering for one batter, which, of course, he struck out.
“I want the ball in big spots, big situations,” Clark said. “I honestly just want to pitch as much as I can.”
The Firebirds’ offense jumpstarted in the third inning when Tuft led off the frame with a full-count walk. Hunter then launched a ball onto the roof of the bandstand past the right-field wall, staring at it off the bat for his second home run of the season.
“I went up there looking for a good pitch to hit,” Hunter said. “I got one over the middle of the plate and got my best swing on it.”
Rubin, who is having an impressive start to his Cape season with a .478 batting average in seven games, led off both the sixth and the eighth inning with a single. He came around to score both times on a sacrifice fly by right fielder Fenwick Trimble and a ground out by Matt Halbach.
The Braves threatened to close the gap with their second run in the seventh — an inning where three pitchers took the mound for Orleans. But, it wasn’t enough to do the trick as Sean Matson closed out the game and completed a three-game winning streak for Orleans, tying their longest of the season.
The Firebirds will head off of the Cape tomorrow, visiting Spillane Field in Wareham for their third matchup against the Gatemen at 6 p.m.
“We just gotta keep it going,” Hunter said. “Don’t look too much into it, just keep on doing what we’re doing.”