LAWRENCEVILLE — In keeping with the first of four nights to celebrate the Copa de la Diversión program for this season, the Gwinnett Stripers temporarily rebranded themselves as Xolos de Gwinnett, after a Mexican breed of hairless dog, for their game with Charlotte on Thursday.
But while they had plenty of bark with several hard-hit balls, it was the visiting Knights who had more bite, with Ryan Goins’ two-run single in the second inning and Alcedis Escobar’s solo home run in the eighth that spelled the difference in a 3-1 Charlotte victory before 1,838 fans at Coolray Field.
“Yeah, I thought we did swing the bats OK (Thursday) night,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill said. “We’ve done that a lot this year. We hit the ball well and had a lot of high exit velocities, but hit balls right at people. And (Charlotte starter Dylan Cease) did pitch a good game against us. We pitched a good ball game. We made a couple of mistakes, and they capitalized. And we just didn’t end up with the big hit.”
Charlotte broke out on top in the top of the second when Zack Collins singled to center and advanced to second when Ryan LaMarre overran the ball, and Paulo Orlando followed with a single and stole second.
It looked like Huascar Ynoa (1-1) might get out of the jam when he struck out the next two hitters, but Goins delivered a two-out, two-run single to right that vaulted the Knights into a 2-0 lead.
That lead held up as Gwinnett had trouble stringing together hits against Cease, who scattered five hits and four walks over six innings of work with seven strikeouts despite a few opportunities.
Travis Demeritte led off the bottom of the second with a double and went to third when LaMarre blooped a single to center, but Gwinnett could not get either runner home.
Then one inning later, Rafael Ortega and Andres Blanco drew back-to-back walks with two outs, and Adam Duvall followed with a solid liner to center, only to have it hold up long enough for the speedy Adam Engel to run under it to end the threat.
“Well, it’s baseball,” said Blanco, who finished the night 1-for-2 with two walks. “They (Charlotte) know us, so they have a (scouting) report where we most of the time hit the ball. Then we have to make an adjustment. … The other part is that we’ve been swinging the bat good. We just have to keep going and put everything together.”
Gwinnett finally broke through for a run in the fifth with two out and nobody on, as Jack Lopez blooped a single to center, while Rafael Ortega followed with a fly ball that fell in fair down the right-field line for an RBI double that cut the Charlotte lead to 2-1.
Patrick Weigel came on for Ynoa in the top of the fifth and pitched three solid innings, but in the eighth, major league veteran Escobar led off with a line drive homer over the wall down the left-field line to stretched the Charlotte lead to 3-1.
Meanwhile, Gwinnett, which had baserunners on in all but two innings on the evening, still had threats in the late innings, but couldn’t capitalize on lead-off walks by Pedro Floimon in the seventh and Blanco in the eighth, and Alex Jackson’s lead-off single in the ninth.
Part of that was a function of timely defense by Charlotte, including Engel’s impressive running grab of Jack Lopez’s deep drive to the gap in right-center with one out in the seventh that looked like it might plate Florimon with the tying run at the time.
Then after Jackson singled and Sal Gardinia was hit by a pitch in the ninth one out later, Lopez, who had made several outstanding plays in the field himself throughout the evening, came up a gain and sent a hard groundball towards the hole between shotstop and third.
But Danny Medick ranged to his left to snag it, and quickly fired to second to trigger an improbable game-ending 6-4-3 double play that secured the win for Cease (4-1), a native of nearby Milton, and Connor Walsh’s first save of the season.
“I told Jack, ‘That’s payback,’ because he’d killed (Charlotte) all night,” Berryhill said. “That double play they turned in at the end of the game, that was incredible.”
Ynoa took the loss despite allowing only the two runs, just one of which was earned, on five hits with six strikeouts over his four innings of work, while Weigel gave up only the home run with three strikeouts in his 3 1/3 innings.
Rafael De Paula also retired the only batter he faced, while Chad Sobotka threw a scoreless ninth with two strikeouts for Gwinnett.