BRADENTON -- When August began and the Marauders envisioned themselves in a fight to the finish with the Cardinals for the Florida State League South's second-half crown, Felipe Gonzalez wasn't supposed to be part of their plans in the starting rotation.
The pitcher has vacillated between the bullpen and early in August his role as a reliever seemed solid. He would get a spot start here and there as Bradenton tried to manage its starting pitcher's innings, as the final days of August ticked away he would be out beyond the right-field fence at McKechnie Field to rescue the Marauders when things went sour on the mound.
Plans changed for Bradenton on Aug. 20. Clay Holmes, the Marauders' most highly touted starting pitcher, was shut down for the year with harm fatigue. Gonzalez made a spot start on that day and has made two more since. His most recent start came Monday in a must-win game against Palm Beach and, in a 4-3 win, it was the best outing of his professional career.
"My first few innings were not good," Gonzalez said, "but then I got better."
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Those first few innings, though, were a flirtation with a no-hitter. Gonzalez took a perfect game into the fifth inning, a no-hit bid into the sixth and finished after allowing one earned run in 6 2/3 innings. It was the longest start of his professional career and it Bradenton (70-63, 38-25 second half) within three games of the first-place Cardinals (73-59, 41-22) with five to play.
Gonzalez (7-6) began the game by spraying three consecutive balls to utility middle infielder Casey Turgeon before responding with three called strikes to open a strikeout. And his early command never really got better. He fell behind 2-0 to the next batter before getting outfielder Collin Radack to fly out.
The righty worked from
behind against 10 of the 24 batters he faced, walked one and 476 in Bradenton watched his perfect game end when he hit Mason Katz to lead off the fifth inning.
"I was extremely impressed on the way he threw," manager Michael Ryan said. "I was even more impressed on how he made quality pitches behind in the count."
Gonzalez focused on his fastball command when he fell behind, spotting the ball at the bottom of the zone to force weak contact from St. Louis' Class A Advanced affiliate.
Less than a week earlier, Gonzalez was the loser in an identical matchup at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. It was his second start since joining the rotation full-time and Palm Beach squared him up for three runs in five innings on Aug. 25.
The Cardinals got a gem of their own in that game. Corey Littrell, whose 2.62 ERA entering Monday was fourth best in the league, went eight shutout against the Pirates' FSL club for the second time in 2015.
With its season on the line, Bradenton got its third full look at Littrell (9-9) and tagged the starting pitcher for three earned runs.
"Because this is the third time we faced him we had a good idea of what he was going to do," Ryan said. "He's such a good pitcher, but we have a good hitting club and we hoped that we'd have more success against him the third time around."
Part of the scouring report told the Marauders that when a runner got into scoring position against Littrell, the lefty likes to use his off-speed pitches and breaking balls. In the fourth inning, Jin-De Jhang cracked a double into the gap in right-center with outfielder Harold
Ramirez on second to give Bradenton a 2-0 lead. Three innings later, after the Marauders tacked on a third unearned run, Austin Meadows crushed a breaking ball off the right-field fence to drive utility man Chris Diaz home for a 4-1 lead and chase Littrell from the game.
Despite a two-run homer from Luke Voit off relief pitcher Montana DuRapau in the ninth, Bradenton survived for one more game. Wednesday will be another dance with elimination for the Marauders and they probably have to win out to even have a chance at catching Palm Beach.
"We played very good tonight and I think we have confidence," Gonzalez said. "Palm Beach is a tough team, but we're playing pretty good."