LAWRENCEVILLE — In order to be in position to win a division in baseball, it is necessary for a team to occasionally find ways to win games they ordinarily might not win.
Tuesday night’s series opener with the Columbus Clippers may have been just that kind of game for the Gwinnett Stripers.
Kyle Wright battled control and command issues through five innings, but still combined with Jeremy Walker and Patrick Weigel to keep the team in the game.
Meanwhile, veteran Pedro Florimon came up big in the clutch with a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth, and A.J. Minter shut the door in the ninth for a 3-2 Gwinnett win before 1,901 fans at Coolray Field.
Florimon finished the night 2-for-4, including the homer and a double, and drove home all three runs as the Stripers (70-49) maintained their lead over Durham in the International League’s South Division to 2 1/2 games, and lowered their magic number to clinch the division to 19, and to clinch a Governors Cup Playoff berth to just 17 with just 20 regular season game remaining.
And they did it on a night in which Wright had his streak of quality starts end at six straight outings, and the offense managed only minimal production despite 12 overall hits.
“Thank God we got a win (Tuesday) night,” said Florimon, who broke an 0-for-7 streak with his big night Tuesday, but is also 10 for his last 25 with four homers and 13 RBIs in his last eight games. “We always find a way to win. … You fight, and when you fight, you always have a chance to win the game.
“I think (the pennant race) is something important for us. Every single day, we get out and try to make the situation better for us.”
Wright’s final line wasn’t bad, allowing just two hits and two runs with five strikeouts over five innings of work.
His biggest problem, however, was his control, as the 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander walked five hitters and threw only 51 of his 90 pitches for strikes.
“It was definitely one of those games,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill said. “Kyle did struggle (Tuesday) night with his command. It’s really strange that as much as he struggled, he still held (Columbus) to only two hits and battled himself out of some jams and gave us five innings. The bullpen came in and did a great job. Walker, Weigel and Minter were all outstanding.”
Two of those walks, free passes to Eric Haase and Eric Stamets, came back to haunt Wright in the top of the third, as both came around to score on a two-out, two-run double by former Atlanta Brave Eric Flaherty to give Columbus a 2-0 lead.
The Stripers got one of those runs back in the bottom of the inning when Triple-A rookie Drew Waters singled with one out and came around to score on Florimon’s first extra-base hit of the night into the right field corner to cut the Columbus lead to 2-1.
Florimon eventually beat the throw to third, but his bid for a triple was thwarted when he overslid the bag and was tagged out, to clear the bases, and eventually blunt Gwinnett’s attempt at a rally.
While the Stripers kept struggling to find hits at the right time against Columbus starter Michael Peoples and reliever James Hoyt, Wright battled through his control issues, and got three straight 1-2-3 innings from Jeremy Walker and Patrick Weigel to keep the deficit at just one run.
That work finally paid off in the bottom of the eighth against Clippers right-hander Cam Hill (3-2), with Waters lofting his second single of the night to bring up Florimon.
“I knew we were down one run,” Florimon said. “So if I fight for (that) at bat, I can get on base and give us a chance to win the game.”
And the veteran infielder delivered his second extra-base hit of the night, reaching for a low and outside change-up from Hill and yanking it just over the wall in the right-field corner for a two-run homer, his 10th round-tripper of the year, to give the Stripers their first lead of the night at 3-2.
“I just saw a change(-up) and I just (tried to) ride (it),” Florimon said. “I just tried not to do too much (with it). … I just tried to put the ball in play. That’s all.”
With his team suddenly leading, Minter came in for the ninth and made sure Columbus would have to put the ball in play, throwing 11 of his 16 pitches for strikes, including a strikeout.
And the 6-0, 215-pound lefty pitched around Mark Mathias’ one-out bloop single to record the final out, inducing a Haase to pop out to Lucas Duda at first to lock down Minter’s fifth save of the season, and the game for the Stripers, who also got two hits each from Waters in his first game at Coolray Field, as well as Jack Lopez.
The series continues Wednesday with right-hander Touki Toussaint (1-3, 6.93 ERA) scheduled to start on the mound for the Stripers against Clippers lefty Logan Allen (0-0, 8.53 ERA).