By Nick Patterson Herald writer
EVERETT — The Everett AquaSox came one foot away from yet another victory in a close contest.
But that miniscule distance was enough to result in Everett’s first loss of the second half of the Northwest League baseball season.
Jamodrick McGruder’s diving attempt at Joe Rapp’s liner in the top of the ninth inning came up short, and the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes rallied to defeat the Sox 6-4 Wednesday afternoon at Everett Memorial Stadium.
Everett made a habit of winning the close games in the process of claiming the Northwest League West Division’s first-half title, and the Sox were 17-5 in games decided by two runs of fewer heading into Wednesday. Everett seemed set for another tight win when it led 4-3 in the top of the ninth with two out and nobody on.
However, the Volcanoes got two runners on base courtesy of Kentrell Hill’s single and Matt Duffy’s walk. That brought Rapp to the plate, and he hit a sharp liner to left on an 0-1 fastball delivered by reliever Matt Vedo.
McGruder, playing left field, raced in and tried and snag the liner to end the game. However, the ball got down and bounced past McGruder to the wall. Both baserunners scored to give Salem-Keizer the lead.
“I saw him closing in on it and I knew he was quick out there,” Rapp said. “I knew there definitely was a chance he could catch it. When I saw it hit the ground, there was a little relief.”
Had McGruder kept the ball in front of him, one run at most would have scored on the play. However, Everett manager Rob Mummau didn’t fault McGruder’s decision.
“I thought the play was pretty close,” Mummau said. “He tried to dive for it to his right and gave it a good try. If he catches it, we win the game. He tried his best, that’s all you can ask.”
The Volcanoes tacked on one more run, then reliever Tyler Mizenko pitched his second scoreless inning to nail down the victory for Salem-Keizer (1-1 second half, 14-26 overall), which is hoping to bury the memories of a rough first half.
“The first half was a little bit of a struggle for us, but when the second half started it’s kind of like a new season,” Rapp said. “We just kind of took a step back, looked at some things we need to focus on, and we’re going to try and continue doing it through the second half.”
Salem-Keizer also received a strong effort from former Meadowdale High School pitcher Chris Johnson. Johnson threw four strong innings of relief to keep the Volcanoes close after the Sox took an early 3-1 lead.
Salem-Keizer’s late rally prevented Everett pitcher Dylan Unsworth from becoming the league’s first six-game winner. Unsworth, Everett’s right-handed control specialist from South Africa, didn’t have his best command — he walked three in 5 2/3 innings after walking none in his previous two starts. But he gutted his way through the outing, allowing three runs, and was in line for the victory, which would have improved his record to 6-0.
“He pitched really well,” Mummau said of Unsworth. “He battled and changed speeds well. Once again it was a good start for him.”
Taylor Ard went 2-for-4 with two RBI to pace Everett’s offense. The Sox dropped to 1-1, 29-11.
Salem-Keizer got on the board right at the start Wednesday. Hill, the first batter of the game, sent a liner to right-center that just eluded a diving Sox right fielder Alfredo Morales for a double. Hill advanced to third on a groundout and scored on Rapp’s sacrifice fly to left, giving the Volcanoes an 1-0 lead.
Everett replied in the bottom of the first. A walk, hit batter and wild pitch put runners on second and third for Ard, who lined a sharp single to left to bring home one run. When Hill in left bobbled the ball, a second run came around to score as the Sox went ahead 2-1.
The Sox got another run in the second, with another Salem-Keizer error playing a role. With two out Ketel Marte hit a one-hopper to short that handcuffed Matt Duffy. Richie Palase scored on the play to make it 3-1.
The Volcanoes pulled back within one in the fourth as doubles by Mac Williamson and Mitchell Delfino combined to make it 3-2.
Everett stretched the lead back to two in the fifth when Ard belted a double off the center-field wall, scoring Mike Zunino from first.
Salem-Keizer made it a one-run game again in the sixth when reliever Dominic Leone’s first pitch was in the dirt and got away from Zunino behind the plate, allowing Chuckie Jones to score from third.