Facing the Edenton Steamers (1-0, 41-15) for the fifth time, the Salamanders (0-1, 28-29) knew what to expect.
However, they couldn’t overcome a 4-2 deficit after 11 innings, and dropped the first game of a best-of-three series in Petitt Cup East Division semifinal play at the North Main Athletic Complex on Wednesday.
It was a tightly contested match-up between the two teams who had beaten each other twice during the regular season.
Edenton held Holly Springs to only six hits with the work of three pitchers – starter Zach Prendergast (7 IP, 2 R, 4 H, 6 SO), Dylan Zarosky (1 IP), and Devin Watts (3 IP, 2 H, 5 SO) who eventually earned the win.
Chris Lanham (5 IP, 2 R, 6 H, 2 SO) started for the Salamanders while the bullpen provided support from Michael Elwell (4 IP, 1 H, 3 SO), Wayne Wages (1 1/3 IP, 2 R, 2 H, 2 SO), and Chris Williams (2/3 IP).
Tied 2-2 through 10 innings, it was Wages who was tagged for a two-run homer from Chance Shepard (3-5, 2 H, 3 RBI) that earned him the loss.
Shepard was the catalyst for Edenton’s scoring all night as his team’s nine hits total was enough to contain the resilient Salamanders.
Lanham got to work right away, and with the help of his defense, put the Steamers’ first three batters out in succession.
Prendergast, 6-0 on the season with a stingy 1.17 ERA, did the same against the Salamanders and both teams remained scoreless following the first inning.
With runners on the corners in the top of the second, the Steamers’ hitters started to challenge Lanham, but the Salamanders defense shook off any subsequent threat with productive rundowns and outs.
Shepard then drove in the game’s first run and put Edenton ahead 1-0 in the top of the second.
Both pitchers continued to keep both teams’ batters handcuffed through the fourth inning.
In the top of the fifth, a double from Shepard put him in scoring position, and a subsequent deflection of Collin Woody’s glove on an Evan Rogers (2-6, 1 RBI) single brought him in to extend Edenton’s lead to 2-0.
Left hander Elwell came in to start the sixth inning for the Salamanders.
While Prendergast continued to keep the Salamanders’ hitters in check, a hit to left-center from Brian Miller (1-5) excited the crowd.
However, in attempt to stretch the play out to a triple, he was tagged for the final out of the inning with Holly Springs still trailing by two runs.
As Elwell kept Edenton off the sheet, the Salamanders finally got on the board and erased Prendergast’s shutout bid in the seventh.
Holly Springs tied it up when Logan Porter (1-4, 1 RBI) singled through the middle and brought Drew Butler (0-4, 1 R) home, and a sac fly to center by Devin Wenzel (0-3, 1 RBI) scored Woody (1-4, 1 R) right after that.
With Prendergast done for the night, Edenton started the eighth with Zarosky pitching.
Holly Springs didn’t score, but neither did Edenton as Elwell was still effectively forcing outs.
Devan Watts came onto the mound in the ninth for the Steamers and went to work right away with a quick out.
Throwing with a lot of speed, he added Joey Roach (1-5) and Woody to his list as he struck each out after lengthy battles at the plate.
With the game still tied at two runs apiece, Wages came in at the top of the 10th inning for the Salamanders.
Edenton gave him trouble, eventually loading the bases, but the lefty managed to get out of the side unscathed.
The Salamanders then had their best chance to win the game, but couldn’t convert it.
While Robbie Thorburn (1-4) and Xyruse Martinez (1-2) singled to left in consecutive at-bats, Edenton’s effective defensive work ran down a bunt from Mike Sconzo (0-4) for the third out that sent both teams to the 11th frame.
With none out and a man on first, Shepard hit a towering two-run shot over the left field fence that put the Steamers ahead 4-2, the play that became the eventual game-winner.
“They made a good pitch with Sconzo,” Ciencin said.
“He got jammed and there was nothing he could do. Shepard’s a good hitter to where he can put the ball anywhere he wants. We just didn’t get in enough on him the way we’d like to, so he took advantage of it.”
Williams came in with one out to finish the inning and gave the Salamanders their final chance at overcoming the two-run deficit.
They couldn’t do it, and conceded their first-ever playoff game to the Steamers.
“I think we made an adjustment late on their guy (Prendergast),” Ciencin said.
“He’s a guy that throws strikes and gets after you. I think we just made too late of an adjustment offensively. We still had a chance at the end of the game. That’s baseball. Mistakes are gonna’ happen, and that’s obviously what happened tonight.”
Down 1-0 in the series, the Salamanders will travel to Edenton in need of a win to keep their season going on Thursday.
“I can’t question the guys’ effort or mentality,” Ciencin said.
“These guys have battled all season and we’re in the 57th, 58th game right now. They’re still goin’ out every night like its opening day.”