EDITOR'S NOTE: The game-winning relief pitcher was incorrect in earlier versions. The story has been corrected.
Bradenton - The Marauders came back to McKechnie Field on Wednesday for the second game of their Florida State League semifinal series against the Mets brimming with confidence. They had poured 11 runs on St. Lucie the previous night in Port St. Lucie, more than enough to make up for a subpar start from Mitch Keller.
With one win separating Bradenton from a berth in the Florida State League Championship Series, the Pirates affiliate had made a statement to open the postseason.
The only issue could have been Wednesday’s pitching matchup. JT Brubaker has been the shakiest member of the Pirates’ Class A Advanced rotation since joining the Marauders in June. P.J. Conlon had dominated his more-than-60 innings with the Mets.
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On paper, Bradenton was already in a hole. In practice, the Marauders were even more optimistic. And by 9 p.m., there was exhiliration.
A game-ending strikeout by relief pitcher Sean Keselica sent players and coaches streaming onto the field to celebrate a 4-1 win and the first trip to the Florida State League Championship Series in the club’s seven-year history.
“I think it, to be honest with you, was the matchup,” manager Michael Ryan said.
Brubaker, who finished the regular season with a 5.32 ERA, had the blueprint to befuddle New York’s FSL team. Connor Joe, who struck out four times Tuesday, carried the offense with a favorable matchup against Conlon. Combined, the two carried the Marauders into the championship series with a 2-0 sweep in front of 1,291 fans.
Bradenton will meet either the Yankees or Blue Jays in the next round, which will begin Friday in Bradenton. Dunedin evened the best-of-three series with Tampa with an 8-4 victory in 15 innings on Wednesday night. They will play a decisive Game 3 on Thursday night.
Brubaker (1-0) gave the Marauders his best outing of the season, shutting out the Mets for six innings despite coughing up six hits and only striking out two batters. Joe scored three runs and set the tone for Bradenton’s offense with a solo home run to lead off the second inning, which gave the Marauders an early 1-0 lead they’d never surrender.
A day earlier, Ryan said, Joe never managed to catch up with St. Lucie starting pitcher Chris Flexen, a hard-throwing righty who burned fastballs past the corner infielder. Conlon (0-1) tried to beat Joe with a fastball on a 1-0 count Wednesday, but the soft-tossing lefty couldn’t quite sneak it past. Joe waited on the heater and cranked an opposite-field homer to right-center field.
“We were comfortable with the matchup,” Joe said.
“We knew that was going to get him back on track,” Ryan said.
Joe added another extra-base hit with a double an inning later and scored his second run when Southeast High School alumnus Michael Suchy, Bradenton’s other hitless player Tuesday, rocketed a double to right field to give the Marauders a 3-0 lead. In the eighth, Joe helped put the Mets out of reach with an infield single and a third run on an RBI by third baseman Wyatt Mathisen. Brubaker handled the rest.
Connor’s home run to the opposite field set the tone for us. He sort of gave the blueprint of what to do against him and everybody behind him followed.
Michael Ryan, Marauders manager
Brubaker hadn’t just gone without a scoreless outing since joining Bradenton — he only had four one-run appearances in his 14 FSL starts. He usually leans too heavily on his fastball, Ryan said, but the Marauders emphasized a stronger pitch mix to keep St. Lucie’s potent lineup off balance.
Brubaker tried to mix in his changeup early and when the Mets struggled to make solid contact, he stuck with it. By working almost exclusively with his fastball and change, Brubaker held St. Lucie to three hits during the first four innings. He was holding onto his slider for the right moment.
The time came in the fifth inning. Runners sat on the corners with two outs and David Thompson, the Mets’ No. 3 hitter, at the plate. Brubaker threw him a pair of sliders and fell behind 2-0, then worked the count full with three straight fastballs. He thought back to the first two pitches — Thompson wasn’t going to swing at a breaking ball. It was a spot Ryan hadn’t seen Brubaker break out the pitch all year. Brubaker struck out the third baseman. St. Lucie’s most dangerous threat was over.
“I was like, let’s go for it,” Brubaker said. “I’m throwing it for a strike here and basically, Hit it (if you can).”