BRADENTON -- After Tuesday's 15-inning marathon loss to the Miracle required the Marauders to fish for 10 innings from five different relief pitchers, a lengthy start for Felipe Gonzalez in the finale of a three-game series against Fort Myers was crucial.
Instead, Wednesday's game grew so bleak for Bradenton that Justin Maffei, an outfielder by trade who has the third best on-base percentage in the Florida State League, pitched the final inning of a 9-0 loss to the Miracle at McKechnie Field, a reward for those of the 566 who stuck around for the entire pummeling.
Trouble began in the first inning for the Marauders when Fort Myers used a two-run home run to jolt out to 3-0 lead before Bradenton even had a chance to bat. It ended after Gonzalez managed only one out during a five-run third. The right-hander's worst start of the year coupled with a suddenly-stumbling Marauders offense left Bradenton with its first shutout loss of the season and a winless two-game homestand.
"It's just a bad start. That's all," manager Michael Ryan said of Gonzalez. "He just left some pitches up, and they hit them. It was a big inning and that's what happens when you're elevated."
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Gonzalez's troublesome first inning began with one of those plays that truly invokes the old cliché describing baseball as a "game of inches." With two outs in two batters, Gonzalez left the first pitch of Alex Swim's at-bat over the plate and the Miracle first baseman made contact.
The ball drifted toward foul territory in left field and bounced on the third-base line for a hit. Swim, who would later score on a balk, had slowed to a near stop on his way to first base before realizing that he had the first hit of the game and scampering to the bag.
Bryan Haar followed with another two-out single before third baseman Niko Goodrum launched a two-run home run off the netting above the Marauders' bullpen in right field.
Gonzalez (1-3) bounced back with a 1-2-3 second inning before he ran into even more turbulence during the third. The first four batters he faced all singled and, after Gonzalez's third strikeout of the game briefly stalled the Miracle's (11-16) march through its lineup, two more singles plated Fort Myers' fourth and fifth runs of the inning and ended Gonzalez's outing prematurely.
"Just put it behind him and he'll do better the next start," Ryan said. "It's just a bad start. No big deal."
By then Bradenton trailed 8-0 and Wei-Chih Hu's win for the Miracle already close to a given, but he carved through the Bradenton lineup for a five-inning shutout, anyway.
Only two Marauders worked their way into scoring position against the right-handed starting pitcher and the only extra-base hit against Hu (4-0) came when shortstop Chris Diaz, the Marauders' No. 9 hitter, whacked a line drive off Goodrum's glove, which slowed the ball enough to let Diaz stretch his would-be single into a double.The Miracle's pitching staff has been one of the best in the FSL so far this season and Hu has been the pinnacle of its success. Fort Myers ranks third in ERA, sixth in strikeouts and first in WHIP. Hu leads the league in both ERA and WHIP and has the fifth most strikeouts in 29 innings.
"He just commands both sides of the plate on all of his pitches," said JaCoby Jones, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts as the designated hitter Wednesday. "He's got a weird delivery, so that's hard to pick up on sometimes."
As the Marauders concluded a 31-inning stretch while managing only five runs, the most productive position player was one that didn't even come to bat. For the ninth frame, Justin Maffei trotted to the mound from right field as Bradenton's first position player to this year.
He got the first two batters to fly out into the outfield and, after a two-out single by Fort Myers shortstop Engelb Vielma, ended the inning when Swim lined out to Diaz at short.
Maffei couldn't help but smile when he was told that he would get an inning of work and even after a blowout loss he beamed when recalling his shutout inning. The 23-year-old hadn't pitched since his junior year of high school, and Ryan said Maffei seemed more excited about pitching than he would have been if his manager told him he was batting clean-up. "It's something different," Maffei said. "It's cool to experience. Check it off the bucket list."