As long as Sebastian Vader was on the mound, the Aberdeen IronBirds looked like the playoff team they had finally become, matching the Tri-City ValleyCats blow-for-blow in a fierce, scoreless pitcher’s duel.
Vader finally exited to a standing ovation after earning the first out of the ninth. When he did, the ValleyCats drove reliever Donnie Hart’s second pitch over the fence in right centerfield.
The blast marred an otherwise exuberant night at Ripken Stadium as the IronBirds gave the crowd a show in their first-ever playoff appearance. Caught between Vader’s gem and an equally dominant performance by Tri-City starter Michael Feliz, neither team generated much offense until Vader was pulled after earning one out in the top of the ninth.
That was when ValleyCats first baseman Conrad Gregor sent an 0-and-1 pitch from reliever Donnie Hart into the night.
“I did all I could, I pitched probably the best game I’ve pitched in my life,” Vader said.
Merullo said he intended to use Vader to face the first batter of the inning, Tri-City third baseman Tyler White, and had Hart ready to face the next two batters, both left-handed hitters.
“Hart has been outstanding for us,” Merullo said. “He [Gregor] got a good pitch and just golfed it out.”
“I knew a lefty was going to come in and come right at me, so I was ready for something,” Gregor said. “I knew once he got that first strike he was going to come with something off-speed, and luckily for me the ball hit the bat and the rest is history.”
Aberdeen showed signs of life in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Conor Bierfeldt singled to center, but was thrown out trying to steal second when catcher Austin Wynns swung through a pitch in a hit-and-run call. Wynn recovered with a single of his own, but pinch hitter Ronarsy Ledesma struck out swinging to end the game.
Feliz struck out eight over seven innings, scattering three hits without surrendering a walk. Reliever Chris Munnelly earned the win for Tri-City.
Vader escaped several jams throughout the night with the help of some timely defense. After Tri-City centerfielder James Ramsey led off the fourth inning with a double, Vader induced two groundballs and a hard liner snagged by second baseman Justin Viele. With a runner on first and one out in the seventh inning, Vader and first baseman Trey Mancini appeared to miscommunicate on a hard-hit ground ball down the first base line. But Vader got the next two batters to fly out to center, ending the threat.
“They got runners in scoring position and I thought, ‘they just can’t score,’” said Vader, who pitched into the ninth inning for the second time this season.
“He’s just gotten better and better with more money on the table,” IronBirds manager Matt Merullo said.
The IronBirds will depart Aberdeen Saturday morning, traveling to Troy, N.Y. to play the second in a three-game series that same night. Right-hander Hunter Harvey (0-1) will take the mound for Aberdeen; Kyle Westwood (2-2, 0.81 ERA) will start for Tri-City.