BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
Often in baseball it just takes one clutch base hit to completely change the outcome of a game.
Such was the case Thursday night at Pioneer Park where the Bristol Sox posted a 3-2 win over Greeneville. The setback, combined with Johnson City's win over Kingsport on Thursday, tossed the Appalachian League West Division playoff race back into a virtual tie between the Astros and Cardinals.
The Appy League playoffs will include the top two teams from each of the two divisions. Elizabethton has a commanding 8.5 game advantage over both the Astros and Cardinals for first place in the West. In the East Division, Burlington has a four game lead over Danville, while Princeton is still in the chase, 2.5 games behind Danville as the league is in the final two weeks of play.
The Astros will have their hands full if they want to make the playoffs. Burlington comes to Pioneer Park today for a three-game series, then Greeneville has to make a six-game road trip, with three at Elizabethton and three at Danville. They close out the season at home to Bluefield on Aug. 26-28.
Greeneville had had plenty of success against Bristol this year, winning seven of the eight games before Thursday's encounter. But a bases loaded triple by Jake Brown in the fifth was all the Sox needed to move past the Astros as they got solid pitching from starter Jake Cose and relievers Michael Gunter and Eric Jaffe.
Bristol managed only four hits in the game, and the Astros did not make an error. Greeneville starter Michael Feliz was solid until control problems haunted him in the decisive fifth frame. He struck out eight but walked four. Relievers Christian Garcia and Jordan Jankowski came on late and shut down Bristol the rest of the way, but the Astros' bats were silent.
Greeneville got some clutch hits of their own in the second and third innings to take a 2-0 lead, scoring a run in each frame.
In the second, Michael Martinez led off with a base hit to right, and Ariel Ovando followed with a double to the wall in left-center to score Martinez all the way from first base.
With two outs in the third, Angel Ibanez stroked a base hit to right, and Carlos Correa followed with an opposite field triple down the right field line to bring home Ibanez.
Feliz faced only one batter over the minimum through three innings, and Alex Williams got Bristol's first hit in the fourth with a harmless two-out double.
But Feliz had problems finding the plate with his pitches in the fifth. He walked Sammy Ayala, got an out, then walked Steven Nikorak before getting the second out. Andrew Douglas walked to load the bases.
Brown then came through with a triple to right, burning right fielder Ovando with the ball sailing over the fielder's head and rolling to the base of the fence, cleaning off the base paths.
Bristol never got a runner past second base the rest of the game, but they really didn't need to as Cose kept the Astros at bay through seven innings.
In the eighth, Martinez and Ovando reached with back-to-back hits and one out, but Michael Gunter got two straight strikeouts as neither pinch hitter Rio Ruiz or Marc Wik took the bat off their shoulder on the third strike.
Jaffe came on to pitch a perfect ninth inning and collect the save.
Martinez and Ovando had two hits each for Greeneville. Alex Williams had two of the Sox's four hits.