In their first four losses, the Rochester Honkers could primarily single out poor pitching as their downfall. Tuesday night was no different.
Despite building a 7-2 lead by the seventh inning, Rochester’s bullpen turned wild, letting the St. Cloud Rox get close. And with the game on the line, the Honkers served up two long home runs, the last emphatically celebrated by St. Cloud’s Chris Esposito while Rochester’s Seth Betts could only watch.
It culminated in an 8-7 comeback win for the Rox over the Honkers at Mayo Field.
“I’m asking a lot out of them, and they’re not as fresh as they would normally be,” Honkers’ first-year manager Paul Weidner said.
And those cracks began showing in the seventh.
Tony Lanier and Betts, a shortstop-turned-pitcher, walked six St. Cloud batters, letting the Rox freely chip away at their deficit without lifting the bat off their shoulders. When Rochester’s arms threw strikes, St. Cloud could only make weak contact or whiff.
Betts began to find his command with the tying run on second and struck out Stevens looking to keep the Honkers up, 7-5. He held off the Rox in the eighth and stared down the middle of their order in the ninth.
That’s when it collapsed.
Betts plunked St. Cloud first baseman Justin Kirby to lead off the inning, and with one out, Tyson Fisher strolled to the plate. The designated hitter — the Rox’s strongest batter — had walked twice but otherwise been quiet at the plate.
But he didn’t waste time when he was needed most, sending a first-pitch no-doubter well over the left field fence to tie the game. And right fielder Esposito followed suit with a solo shot into the night, catapulting St. Cloud (3-4) to an 8-7 advantage.
“He wanted the ball. He wanted to finish the game, and he did. Now, I know it didn’t go the way he wanted it to, but he did, so I’m proud of him,” Weidner said.
It was the fifth time in the season’s first nine games that Rochester’s relievers allowed at least five runs. The pen also wasted a strong outing from right-hander Evan O’Toole, who did his part to try and right the pitching staff.
He only allowed one hit through the first four innings, sitting down eight in a row at one point. O’Toole even turned in a three-pitch first inning, part of just a 70-pitch effort across five-plus frames.
He began to show signs of weariness in the fifth, allowing a two-run shot to Rox catcher Nate Stevens. He pulled a pitch down the line and off the apartment building beyond the right field wall.
The blast was initially ruled foul, but the umpires convened and overturned the call to give Stevens his first home run of the year and put St. Cloud on the board.
But it wasn’t enough to overcome the Honkers’ bats early on.
Rochester (4-5) broke through in the third against Rox right-hander Benny Roebuck, who made his season debut. With runners on the corners and no outs, Honkers second baseman Sam Hojnar tapped a grounder to Kirby, who attempted to turn the double play.
But his throw to second went awry, and all runners were safe as one run came across. Then, Rochester loaded the bases with two outs for cleanup hitter Ivan Witt. The catcher took the first two pitches, then unleashed on a Roebuck fastball and deposited it far over the left-center fence for a grand slam.
“We had some good swings on good pitches. We didn’t miss fastballs today,” Weidner said.
In his first start, Roebuck allowed five runs and five hits while striking out three in four innings, though no runs were earned.
The Honkers added to their lead in the fifth on a botched pickoff attempt, and again in the sixth on a bases loaded walk to hold a 7-2 edge.
But then, the bullpen fell apart once again, and with it went the hopes of a victory.
“It was tough, the on-field performance as far as the amount of free bases and walks that happened was way, way, way too high,” Weidner said. “And they know that.”
The Honkers play at St. Cloud at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday.