BRADENTON -- A day after Michael Ryan spent almost half an hour following a Marauders loss pleading with his team to reshape their attitude and rediscover their passion, he tried to lead by example.
Four walks by Ryan Hafner in the top of the fourth inning gave the Miracle its third run in a 4-3 win at McKechnie Field on Friday and once the relief pitcher escaped the frame his manager came to his defense by confronting home-plate umpire Ryan Benson.
The meeting between manager and umpire was subdued as far as ejection-causing arguments go. Contesting balls and strikes tends to lead to automatic ejections and after Ryan briefly aired his grievances, Benson pointed him back to the clubhouse. The frustrated manager made the slow trudge to the right-field exit by the home bullpen where he could stew for almost an hour before his team retreated to their locker room after another disappointing loss.
"We've had trouble with that crew all year, so it was obvious what they were doing," Ryan said. "Every time we're in a close game, it's the same exact pattern, so I've had enough."
Two days after Hafner took the loss during his first game with Bradenton (27-34) in almost a month, Ryan relied on him again. The manager lamented the necessity of using Hafner during the 11th inning of a tie game after that loss to the Threshers. Even in a tie game, a seventh-inning appearance for Hafner against Fort Myers (31-30) didn't carry the same importance.
The outing itself was an even larger adventure. The towering right-hander faced seven batters. He walked four of them and retired the other three on hard-hit flyouts. The inning began with catcher Alex Swim, whose .320 batting average is less impressive when his total lack of home runs is considered. He flew out hard to left. Then Hafner walked outfielder Marcus Knecht and watched designated hitter Mitch Garver drill a fly ball to center field for the second out.
This was where the debacle began. First baseman Bryan Haar walked on four pitches, and second baseman Ryan Walker walked on five. With the bases loaded and Chad Christensen at the plate, Hafner began the at-bat with consecutive strikes. The third pitch was in the dirt. The next three sealed the deal on Ryan's ejection.
Hafner missed once on the outside edge, then once off the inside of the plate and then again to the outside. Christensen walked to first. Knecht walked home. A few minutes later, Ryan walked to his office.
He didn't get to see his team respond in person during the eighth when the Marauders capitalized on an error by Miracle shortstop Engelb Vielma to score an unearned run off reliever Alex Muren (2-2) and tie the game.
"Best game I've ever seen in my career, no question," Ryan said a day after tearing into his team for a lackadaisical attitude and a lapse of focus. "As far as heart, talking about the game, learning, effort, guys pulling for each other, that's the best game I've ever seen."
He also missed them give the lead back because of another walk.
After a 1-2-3 eighth inning, relief pitcher Clario Perez (2-3) walked Garver with one out in the ninth. Zach Granite replaced the DH as a pinch runner and went to second on a single by Haar. Two batters later, Christensen launched a single to center and Granite raced home to score the winning run and send those of the 1,492 who stuck around through an hour-long rain delay home witnesses to another hiccup.
There are, though, signs of a coming turnaround. Even with five losses in six games, the manager's message from Thursday resonated in the clubhouse.
"Putting the loss away," Ryan said, "it was almost one of the most perfect days I've ever seen."