BRADENTON -- The best chance the Marauders had to make up ground on the Cardinals in the Florida State League South's second-half standings came and left 20 minutes after Saturday's game began at McKechnie Field.
Rain delayed the start of Bradenton's final meeting with the Stone Crabs of the regular season for an hour and 34 minutes and right around 7:45 p.m. Austin Meadows started a rally that should have sent the Marauders on their way to a win against Charlotte.
He singled and then fellow outfielder Harold Ramirez beat one out in the infield. A third straight hit by Jin-De Jhang loaded the bases with one out. The pressure was on German Marquez until it wasn't -- he got Wyatt Mathisen to ground out to first. Now the pressure was on Steranka.
Marquez battled back from 2-0 and the count went full on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. Steranka ripped the next two pitches for foul balls. The 10th pitch of the bat ended the epic. Steranka whiffed. Crabs catcher Armando Araiza pumped his fist. The Marauders left the bases loaded and only scored once during the series finale, dropping their second straight to the Stone Crabs, 3-2, in front of 3,346 in Bradenton.
"Bases loaded, one out," manager Michael Ryan said. "It could have made the game way different. If Mathisen hits a homer there it could be a totally different game."
Instead, the third baseman launched a home run to left field in the eighth inning to slice the deficit to one run before the Marauders (62-56, 30-18) bowed in the ninth. Even with the defeat, though, they remain three games behind Palm Beach, which lost 5-1 to the Miracle in Fort Myers on Saturday.
Steranka's inning-ending strikeout was one of only two for Marquez (6-11) and still the Pirates' Class A Ad
vanced affiliate went down with relative ease against the Charlotte starting pitcher and the relief pitcher who followed.
Bradenton scored its only run off the starter in the third inning when outfielder Justin Maffei was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning and later driven in by a Jhang double. The catcher's chalk-scraping grounder to right was the only extra-base hit against the righty for a Marauders team playing without usual starters Michael Fransoso, Edwin Espinal and FSL All-Star Reese McGuire. Mathisen's solo homer off relief pitcher Steve Ascher was the only other.
"They had two really good starts. There was nothing we could really do," Mathisen said. Marquez "just threw better pitches after the first inning, so he settled down, got in his groove and once we got in that groove we couldn't get him out of it."
Before the weekend began Friday night, Bradenton hadn't been held to two runs or fewer in consecutive games since a doubleheader against the Threshers on July 28. But after scoring five in the series opener against the Rays' affiliate, the Marauders bats stumbled and missed a chance to cut into the Cardinals' lead for the second straight night. Although Clay Holmes was far from spectacular, lasting only 3 2/3 innings before creeping to the 75-pitch limit mandated as he works back from Tommy John surgery, the starting pitcher limited the Crabs (63-53, 18-28) to two earned runs. The bats and gloves behind Holmes (0-2) betrayed him.
A double by outfielder Yoel Araujo and single by Justin Williams put the Stone Crabs ahead in the second. Williams knocked a shallow line drive into center field, sending Jeff Roy racing in and Araujo around third. The outfielder's throw arrived at the plate at nearly the same moment as Araujo, who slid in a beat before the tag to give Charlotte a 1-0 lead.
An inning later, Holmes walked leadoff hitter Braxton Lee and it cost him his second earned run. Two singles by second baseman Kean Wong and Mike Marjama loaded the bases for Maxx Tissenbaum. The catcher grounded to second for a potential double play. As Wong whirled around third base, a hard slide by Marjama took Chris Diaz to the ground and knocked the ball to the edge of the dirt.
"We could've made some plays for," Ryan said. "That was the difference in the game."
But that was it for the Crabs. Bradenton managed only four hits in the final seven innings and after Mathisen's home run the final four batters went down in order, including two of the final three on strikeouts by Stone Crabs closer Mike Franco.
"Hopefully we see them again," Ryan said. The Marauders won't play Charlotte again in the regular season, but the Crabs have already clinched a playoff spot. "That's what we're counting on and we'll make the adjustments the next time we play them."