BRADENTON -- The Stone Crabs' place in the Florida State League postseason is secure -- they locked up their position by running away with the South's first half. For the past week, though, they've found themselves in the heart of the second-half race.
Last weekend, the Marauders swept a three-game series in Port Charlotte to run the Crabs' losing streak to seven games. After a day off, Charlotte dropped three straight to the Cardinals at Charlotte Sports Park.
Now the Stone Crabs are in Bradenton, still playing their part in determining who they'll face in the postseason. After helping the Marauders make up ground for three days, then beating them back for three, Charlotte dropped its 11th straight game, 5-2, at McKechnie Field on Thursday, leaving Bradenton three games behind Palm Beach.
"In this league, I would rather be in this position that we are in right now and be the chaser rather than be the chasee," manager Michael Ryan said. "Not to jinx anything, but teams that have been in first place haven't fared well late.
"I think it's more pressure to stay in first place."
The early innings followed the theme for the Crabs' lengthy tumble. After a leadoff triple for Justin Maffei turned into a run on an Austin Meadows groundout, the Stone Crabs (61-53, 16-28) hurt themselves with a second-inning to slip into an early 2-0 hole against Bradenton (62-54, 30-16).
Consecutive one-out singles by infielders Michael Fransoso and Chris Diaz put runners on the corners against Greg Harris. The starting pitcher slogged through four innings while allowing three earned runs, but even the unearned score was his fault. Harris (1-2) tried to pick Diaz off first and his throw bounced under first baseman Pat Blair's glove and toward the bleachers. Diaz went to second and Fransoso trotted home.
Although Charlotte answered with a pair of runs against starting pitcher Luis Heredia, the early runs were costly. Ten of the 11 straight losses for the Rays' Class A Advanced affiliate have come by three runs or fewer. So when Meadows cracked a two-run double to the gap in left-center it kept the Crabs' script familiar.
When the Marauders left for a six-game road trip last Friday, Meadows had steadily been climbing the league leaderboard in total bases. Thursday's double, which was his only hit, puts him alone as the league leader with 177. In his past seven games, he's racked up 17 total bases.
"I'm really getting into my legs more," said Meadows, who was named the Pirates' best hitting prospect by MLB.com this week. "I know I'm capable of doing that."
Bradenton, which overcame an 1:37 rain delay before the game and a fifth-inning back injury to corner infielder Edwin Espinal, kept up its relentless with 10 hits, and in the seventh outfielder Harold Ramirez tacked on an insurance run with a single off the shortstop's glove.
For the final four innings Heredia and two Marauder relievers held the Stone Crabs to two hits. Henry Hirsch replaced Heredia with two outs and a runner on third in the fifth, and immediately got Goetzman to fly out. In the next two innings, Hirsch (2-2) conceded one walk and no hits. Dovydas Neverauskas allowed two hits in the final two innings for his second save with Bradenton.
"The first time I saw him throw I knew it was different," said Ryan, who watched Neverauskas put up a 5.60 ERA as a starter with Class A West Virginia last year. "I'm not really surprised that he's reliable. It looks really good coming out of his hand."
Goetzman, a Palmetto High School alumnus, went 1-for-4 with a strikeout in the cleanup spot and drove in one of Charlotte's two runs.