By Mac Friday
(Photo: Braden Reed/Bourne Braves)
Bourne Braves righty Sean Culkin hasn’t been on the roster for long, nine days as a matter of fact. But when Braves manager Scott Landers needed a reliever to bridge the gap between starter Bryce Cunningham and closer Nigel Belgrave on Sunday in Game One of the West Division Championship Series against the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, Culkin answered above and beyond the call of duty.
The JMU sidearmer tossed the remainder of the contest, four and a third innings of scoreless baseball on Sunday night, shutting the door on a surging Hyannis offense which scored 15 runs in the winner-take-all Game Three against the Cotuit Kettleers to advance to the series against the Braves starting on Sunday. Bourne went on to take a 4-3 win at home, gaining the series lead and edging one game closer to a spot in the Cape League Championship Series for the second time in as many years.
“I was just trying to do my job,” Culkin told Braves sideline reporter Ethan Frank humbly. “Coming out of the pen, your job is to throw strikes and get outs and that’s what I tried to do the entire time. I wasn’t trying to think too much – just next guy, next pitch.”
“I just kept with him,” Braves manager Scott Landers said. “We didn’t need Nigel after all and get to save him for tomorrow. He was just rolling and they couldn’t get any good swings on him. We had Nigel available if we needed him, but if we don’t have to, that’s okay as well.”
Two of Culkin’s hits given up came immediately after his entrance in the fifth inning. Culkin allowed a single off the bat of third baseman Drew Erhard to put him at first and right fielder Jackson Ross at second. Catcher Pancho Ruiz then seared a ball into right field which right fielder Ryan Enos failed to catch. Ross scored easily, but Enos made up for his blunder with a terrific relay throw to first baseman Chris Brito, who in turn fired a dot to catcher Alan Espinal, tagging a charging Erhard out at the plate.
Despite Enos’ mistake, his throw preserved the Braves’ lead, allowing for Culkin to start fresh. The righty sidewinder only allowed two more hits on the entire evening – a futile two-out single by center fielder Cole McConnell in the seventh and a two-out single by second baseman Rikuu Nishida. The Japanese junior college product led the Cape League in steals this summer and looked to add one more to his resume in the ninth after his single off of Culkin, potentially setting his running mate, the MVP runner-up in designated hitter Mitch Jebb, with a game-tying hit.
Not on Espinal’s watch.
“We knew they like to run and our pitchers do a good job of keeping them close,” Espinal said. “I knew he was going to steal every chance he got and he did that in the first and I failed to get him. I wasn’t going to let that happen again so when he went in the ninth, I was ready.”
“In a close game like that, 4-3, two outs with one of the best hitters in the league at the plate he was just trying to get into scoring position and I had Sean feeding me fastballs. I was ready to go.”
Espinal fired a dart to John Peck at shortstop, leaving the ball at eye level and to the right of the bag, a near-perfect setup ball for the tag. Peck lunged over the sliding Nishida and swiped with his glove, just barely beating Rikuu to the bag. Field umpire Mike Beal took his time with the call, but confirmed Espinal’s efforts, sealing the Braves’ 4-3 win.
On the offensive side of things, the Braves wasted no time getting on the board. Braves’ second baseman Matt Shaw acquired his first hit of the playoffs to score third baseman Bryce Eblin from second. After Shaw stole second, left fielder Evan Sleight drove in his fellow Massachusetts native with a ground-rule double to left field. Designated hitter Josh Kuroda-Grauer, Sleight’s teammate at Rutgers, then drove in the third run of the frame with a high chopper over Erhard’s head at third. The Braves added one more run in the third, as Brito scored on a wild pitch.
Eblin went 1-for-2 against the Harbor Hawks on Sunday with a walk and an intentional walk to set up a double play ball in a jam in the seventh. Eblin hit .524 against Hyannis this summer during the regular season, and looks to continue his hot streak against Hyannis in the West Division Championship Series.
“I don’t know if it’s that I get ahead in the count, or I see a lot of fastballs,” Eblin said. “I just try to put my best swing on the fastball and I guess I’ve found some pretty good luck with that.”
Cunningham took the hill for the Braves to open the contest on eight-days rest after a brief relief appearance in Chatham. The big righty from Vanderbilt gave Bourne its best start of the playoffs thus far, both in length and quality. No starter had made it more than four innings or given up less than two earned runs. Cunningham did both, giving the Braves four and two-thirds of solid dominance.
Hyannis grabbed three hits against Cunningham but found a way to score three runs. One came on an error by Eblin, a ball that ate him up at third. Cunningham walked in another. The final run crossed during Culkin’s appearance. Cunningham allowed three runs on three hits, one earned, with a trio of walks and an eye-popping eight strikeouts.
“We gave them their runs,” Landers said. “My hat goes off to Hyannis though because they put serious pressure on you. Our pitchers dominated the whole night. The third got away from us a little bit but we were able to corral it.”
For Game Two on Monday, Bourne has history on its side. The Braves went 3-2-1 in the regular season against Hyannis and 2-0-1 at McKeon Park with two of their most memorable wins to date – the 11-run top of the ninth and Shaw’s cycle, the first Cape League player to do so in over 11 years. Landers and his squad remain tranquil, not letting history bloat their ego.
“We just play our game every day,” Landers said. “Hopefully we come out tomorrow and get a win and maybe a day off. That would be nice. But if not, hopefully, we get a win and keep it going.”
Game Two begins at 6:00 p.m. at McKeon in Hyannis.