BRADENTON -- After an hour-and-46-minute wait, the Bradenton Marauders' comeback began.
A first-inning debacle by starting pitcher Luis Heredia and reliever Felipe Gonzalez left Bradenton in a six-run hole against the Cardinals after half an inning at McKechnie Field and a 1-2-3 bottom of the first left the 1,026 in attendance without much reason to hope for a comeback.
Thunder rolled in the distance throughout the first frame, and a bolt of lightning flashed beyond right field as the inning raced to an end. The McKechnie grounds crew prepared for the incoming storm, draping the tarp over the infield and sending the game into a delay.
When it concluded, the signs of a comeback materialized. By the end of the fifth inning, the Marauders had climbed within a run. And in the bottom of the ninth, an error-aided dash around the diamond by pinch-runner Chris Diaz completed Bradenton's comeback and sent the game to extra innings.
And it was there that the Marauders would finally go down, the losers in an 8-6, 11-inning marathon that started at 6:33 p.m. and didn't end until 11:47 p.m.
“If you take the result out of the equation, it was a good day the way they responded,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said. “There were so many good things that went on tonight that can carry you for games down the line.”
While Bradenton (18-18) batted during the eighth inning, outfielder Justin Maffei warmed up in the Marauders' bullpen. If things turned totally south during the ninth, the left fielder was ready to pitch for the second time in three home games for Bradenton. But when Diaz and the Marauders pushed the game into extras it became relief pitcher Henry Hirsch's turn to build on the eight scoreless innings that relievers Clario Perez and Brett McKinney had already delivered.
Hirsch's first inning was smooth -- he worked around a single and walk to force an 11th inning. He began the 11th and final frame with a strikeout of outfielder Rowan Wick before shortstop Juan Herrera sneaked a single into right field. Diaz, now at third, played in against speedy leadoff hitter C.J. McElroy Jr., who chopped a single over Diaz's head. Then second baseman Mason Katz blooped a single to center, loading the bases despite the lack of a hard-hit ball.
After an infield popup, first baseman Luke Voit lashed a two-run single into right. Bradenton's comeback had come and gone. The Marauders were unable to fully recover from the six-run hole that Heredia pitched them into during the first inning.
“I knew how they were going to come out and play with effort,” Ryan said. “We just tried to make it close, that’s all. It’s tough when you’re down by six after you sit for an hour and whatever.”
After spending the first month of the season at extended spring training at Pirate City, Heredia finally joined Bradenton on Saturday. Pittsburgh's No. 15 prospect according to Baseball America, Heredia was stuck across town to work on his conditioning before joining the Pirates' Single-A Advanced affiliate.
With Matt Benedict called to Triple A Indianapolis for a spot start against Norfolk, the timing worked out for Heredia to make his season debut in the second of a three-game series against the Cardinals at McKechnie.
The 6-foot-6 20-year-old who signed with a $2.6-million bonus out of Mexico in 2010 tossed his first pitch at 6:33 p.m. By 7, his evening was done. Heredia's season debut lasted only two outs and he allowed the first five runs of the Marauders' roller-coaster loss to Palm Beach (19-17).
“He just wasn’t very good,” Ryan said. “He was up, didn’t have much command of anything. Hopefully he’s better his next time. He just wasn’t very good. What else you want me to say?”
After inducing a groundout from the first batter of the game, the Cardinals laced consecutive singles into the outfield, and Heredia issued a walk to load the bases. Pitching coach Scott Elarton came to the mound for the first time, trying to settle his newest arm.
Heredia promptly fell behind with three straight pitches outside the zone. He was leaving his pitches up, and Elarton's visit didn't fix it. He aimed the fourth pitch of the at-bat at the bottom of the zone for a strike and went for the same spot with the fifth pitch. Palm Beach outfielder Jimmy Bosco hacked and tapped the ball halfway to the mound. Heredia raced forward, thought for a moment about flipping the ball home before whirling and throwing late to first.
Manager Michael Ryan didn't give Heredia time to let his outing balloon into an outright debacle. Cardinals catcher Carson Kelly belted a sacrifice fly to center, and Heredia walked the next batter to load the bases again. Elarton came to the mound again to yank Heredia after 2/3 of an inning.
Felipe Gonzalez came on in relief and Palm Beach outfielder Rowan Wick promptly launched a backbreaking grand slam into the Marauders' bullpen in right field. Five of the six runs fell upon Heredia, who sports a 67.50 ERA after his first outing this year.