EVERETT – When the Everett AquaSox returned home for their longest homestand of the season, they were reeling, having seemingly played themselves out of playoff contention.
But now they depart for their next road trip on a high, having pulled themselves back into the race.
Everett received sparkling pitching from Jeff Gilmore and David Asher, Luis Valbuena slugged his fifth home run of the season, and the AquaSox polished off a key homestand by defeating the Tri-City Dust Devils 4-3 in Northwest League action Sunday.
“I don’t care who you are, you’re going to go through a little stretch where your character and makeup are tested,” Everett manager Pedro Grifol said. “We played very poorly during much of that losing streak. But this team showed a lot of character and we saw that some of these kids have a very good future.”
Everett (21-19) came into the eight-game homestand fresh off a five-game skid during which nothing went right. And with Everett losing the first game of the homestand and Vancouver winning every game in sight, the AquaSox looked like a team fated to play spoiler in the second half.
However, Everett won six of the next seven – including four of five from Tri-City (18-22) – and now heads into its five-game series at Yakima just four games behind Vanouver.
“We were coming off five horrendous games where we didn’t pitch and we didn’t hit,” Gilmore said. “So we got back to the basics, which are pitching, defense and situational hitting. This game comes down to pitcher-vs.-hitter battles and in those five games we weren’t winning those. Since then we’ve taken a lot of pride in winning those battles in the big spots.”
Gilmore played a big role in Everett’s turnaround, winning twice during the homestand. Sunday he pitched five quality innings, giving up two runs on five hits and no walks. He struck out eight to improve to 3-0.
“My curveball is kind of like my third pitch, my emergency pitch,” Gilmore said. “My best pitch is my changeup and I usually use my fastball-changeup combination to set the hitters up. When I’m stumped, I go to the curve and luckily it was working today.”
Asher came in and matched Gilmore’s performance. After walking the first batter he faced and hitting the second, he retired 10 straight. In 32/3 innings he gave up one hit and struck out four, leaving the game with one on and two out in the ninth and Everett leading 4-2.
The final out was a little harder to get. Stephen Kahn came in and appeared to get the final out on a liner to right. However, right fielder Mike Saunders lost the ball in the sun and the ball dropped for a double. A walk and a wild pitch brought one run in and left runners at second and third. But Kahn struck Pedro Strop out looking to earn his first save.
Tri-City was led by Daniel Carte, who was 2-for-4 with a solo home run, his third of the season.
“It was a good series,” Tri-City manager Ron Gideon said. “You could tell that we were evenly matched teams. We just got into situations where we didn’t make the pitches when we needed to or made key defensive mistakes.”
Valbuena gave Everett the lead in the bottom of the second, launching a ball into the homer porch in right for a two-run shot, giving Everett a 2-0 lead.
The Sox added to their lead in the third when Jeff Flaig hit a long fly ball to left that carried to the wall, driving Jeff Clement home from first and increasing Everett’s lead to 3-0.
The Dust Devils broke through against Gilmore in the fourth when Michael Paulk lifted a fly ball to right that banged off the wall for an RBI double. Tri-City cut the lead to one in the fifth when Carte skied a solo homer to left, making it 3-2.
Everett got that run back in the bottom of the fifth when Clement drove the ball to the wall in center for a sacrifice fly, making it 4-2.