BRADENTON -- Jin-De Jhang was halfway from third base to home plate when he chucked his helmet toward the sky Tuesday.
As it tumbled to the ground, a Gatorade bucket emptied on Jhang's head and the catcher celebrated with his teammates at home plate.
The Marauders' season was -- again -- on the line when Jhang was at the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning against Cardinals closer Josh Lucas, whose sixth pitch stayed over the plate to Jhang and a compact swing of the bat sent it towering out toward center field.
C.J. McElroy started to run back and leapt at the wall.
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Jhang rounded second and turned his head toward center field.
McElroy was on the ground. He didn't have the ball.
Field umpire Matt Winter waved for a home run.
The All-Star could trot the rest of the way.
His roommate, Edwin Espinal, was the first one out of the dugout, slamming his hands together.
Bradenton needed to sweep a three-game series with Palm Beach to stay alive and Jhang's walk-off homer for a 4-3 win in the series finale kept the Marauders (71-63, 39-25 second half) in playoff contention.
"I feel very happy," Jhang, a native of Taiwan, said through broken English after playing the hero.
Said Espinal: "This is my brother. We go together everywhere and every time he tries picking my other teammates up."
McKechnie Field had a playoff atmosphere despite a crowd of only 792. The Pirates' Class A Advanced affiliate had to win.
Late Monday night, the Cardinals (73-61, 41-23) made a decision to try to close out the division.
St. Louis' FSL club didn't announce its starter until after Monday's game in Bradenton. A loss kept the Cardinals from clinching, so they decided to send out Trey Nielsen, a contender for FSL Pitcher of the Year.
The Marauders began the game with a single, walk and single against the starting pitcher to load the bases for Edwin Espinal with one out. The corner infielder lashed a double to right field to drive
in outfielders Jeff Roy and Austin Meadows. A sacrifice fly by Jhang sent Harold Ramirez home for Bradenton's third run.
Nielsen entered the game with a 2.41 ERA, best in the league. After coughing up three earned runs on three hits and two walks in 2/3 of an inning, it jumped to 2.63.
"Confidence," manager Michael Ryan said. "We had some success against him before twice. I know he was coming off some good outings, but breaking down some tape and stuff we had an idea what he was gonna do. To get out to such a quick start and get him out in the first was unbelievable."
The Marauders scored only in the first inning and the last. The 3-0 cushion they built sending eight batters to the plate in the bottom of the first was enough to withstand a pair of home runs by Palm Beach against starting pitcher Frank Duncan and keep the game tied until the bottom of the ninth.
With two on and one out in a tie game, the Cardinals brought in Lucas (4-3), who promptly walked Meadows to load the bases. Ramirez had a chance to win the game on a slow grounder to the shortstop Robelys Reyes.
The outfielder slid into first base and, for a moment, it seemed as if Bradenton had survived for another day with a walk-off fielder's choice. His body was now draped over the bag when umpire Matt Winter punched once to call him out.
The inning was over and, a beat later, so was Ramirez's day. The outfielder slammed his helmet to the infield dirt. It bounced a third of the way toward second. Winter punched again. This time, the Marauders' No. 3 hitter was sent to the clubhouse.
"I think he was safe," Ryan said. "I think he makes it easier on Matt if he runs through the base."
Roughly 15 minutes later, the call became irrelevant. Junior Lopez (5-0) fired his third hitless inning of relief duty and Jhang's big fly meant Bradenton will play meaningful baseball when the Mets visit Thursday.
The Marauders now trail by two games with four to play. If they can somehow pull off a comeback, it won't just feel like the playoffs at McKechnie.
"We're feeling good," Espinal said. "I believe we have a chance. Palm Beach now is down and if we keep going I believe in my teammates. I think we have a chance for the playoffs."