BRADENTON -- When Ryan Hafner's first outing for the Marauders in nearly a month began Wednesday, most of the 558 fans who began the game at McKechnie Field had already departed and Bradenton was already more than an inning into its second extra-inning game against the Threshers in as many nights.
On May 18, the right-handed relief pitcher gave up four runs to the Fort Myers Miracle in 2 1/3 innings and then was off to extended spring training. Although he was still on the Marauders' roster, he was actually in Pirate City trying to figure out what made his ERA balloon to 9.61 this year from 4.31 during his first season with Pittsburgh's Advanced Single-A affiliate.
He seemed to be a bit better Wednesday, but baseball is cruel and even when he retired consecutive batters in the 11th, the leadoff walk that began the frame bit him. Andrew Knapp, who unsuccessfully bunted after Andrew Pullin began the inning with a walk, ran home from second base on a single by Chace Numata when Barrett Barnes' throw from left field sailed wide of the plate to give Clearwater a 2-1 win in Bradenton.
"I liked what I saw," manager Michael Ryan said. "Game action is a lot different, and it's something he'll get accustomed to."
Before a dozen or so Marauders staff members dragged the tarp covering the McK
echnie infield off the diamond on a dreary and overcast night in Bradenton, the Marauders' quest for a first-place finish in the first half of the Florida State League season was already over. The Stone Crabs won once on Tuesday and once on Wednesday to stretch their lead in South division to 9 1/2 games and officially eliminate Bradenton.
For the second half to be different, the Marauders will have to pitch better. For most of the season's first two months, Bradenton has had one of the FSL's best offenses and defenses. Entering Wednesday, the Marauders had scored fewer runs than only Charlotte and had committed fewer errors than anyone. And still Bradenton was the only team in the Pirates' organization with a losing record because of a 3.88 ERA, the second worst in the league.
"It was all about our starting pitching, to be honest with you," Ryan said. "We're starting to get some quality starts."
For five innings, starting pitcher Steven Brault battled deep counts and lengthy at-bats to limit Clearwater to two hits. For the next two innings, reliever Henry Hirsch kept them to one.
Neither of the teams' runs during the first nine innings were the result of particularly good hitting. The Marauders took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when Wyatt Mathisen made it to third base on a single, wild pitch and passed ball, then dashed home when third baseman Mitchell Walding couldn't handle a ground ball by Barrett Barnes. The Threshers evened the score at 1 when Austin Meadows misjudged Drew Stankiewicz's fly ball to center and the second baseman later scored on a sacrifice fly.
But after the third inning, Bradenton's bats flailed. That frame was the only time the Marauders scored multiple hits in a single inning, and they only put multiple runners on base twice during the final eight frames.
"Offensively we're gonna hit," Ryan said. "It's just we'll go through some stages like we are now."
When Ryan and others in the organization looked at Bradenton's roster during the preseason, they saw a team that was more likely to contend for the division's second half title than the first.
As the manager of Class A West Virginia in 2014 -- a roster featuring numerous current Marauders -- Ryan won 14 more games during the second half of the year than in the first.
The key, though, will be whether the pitchers can string together good outings. Led by Brault, three of Bradenton's starting pitchers have ERAs in the 3.00s and with a week and a half of essentially meaningless baseball standings-wise Ryan has time to figure out how to replace recently promoted closer Brett McKinney.
"Our pitching's coming together. You can tell it's really good," Ryan said. "They've got a bunch of grit, man."