J.J. Cruz took the plate with two outs in the seventh inning and the go-ahead run 90 feet from scoring. And in his first game with the Rochester Honkers, Cruz came through.
He knocked a single just past the outstretched glove of Mankato MoonDogs second baseman Evan Berkey, a former Honker, to put Rochester up one. Cruz’s timely hit was one of two punctual knocks for the Honkers’ new-look lineup, which did just enough to help Rochester snap a two-game skid and beat Mankato, 4-3, at Mayo Field on Monday.
“We’re not going to ride it too high or too low,” Rochester manager Paul Weidner said. “We played error-free baseball tonight, our pitchers filled it up and our hitters started to come around.”
For his team’s first game coming off a four-day break, Weidner debuted a fresh batting order. Eight of the Honkers’ nine starters — Mike Bolton Jr. was the lone returnee — saw their first game action this summer after arriving over the weekend, replacing departing early-season stalwarts like Cam Thompson and Marco Castillo.
As expected, much of the night was up-and-down for that group as they began to get acclimated to their new home. Rochester (5-6) stranded 10 runners on base and only managed two runs through six innings. But one of the newcomers made his mark early.
With a runner on first and one out in the fourth inning, catcher Hank Bard blasted a two-run shot off the scoreboard in right-center field. It followed a solo homer from MoonDogs right fielder Adam Fogel in the top half of the frame and gave the Honkers a 2-1 lead.
“I was seeing, once (Mankato right-hander Jonathan Clark) got ahead with the fastball, he would try and get you out in front with something soft,” Bard said. “I got the pitch to hit, and it was there.”
That fourth inning was the last for Clark, who was also making his Northwoods League season debut. He allowed just two runs and four hits while striking out six and walking four.
Clark was outdueled by Rochester’s Brendan Knoll, who turned in his second solid outing. The right-hander and Kasson-Mantorville graduate only allowed three hits and one run in 5⅓ innings while striking out five and walking two.
But with the Honkers’ scuffling pitching staff putting together its second straight quality game, the offense was quiet for much of the evening. And in the seventh, the MoonDogs pounced.
Dustin Demeter clubbed a double to deep right field, and a slight bobble by Jack Colette ensured Berkey scored from first to knot the game at 2-2. Demeter then scored on a Patrick Williams wild pitch to send Mankato (9-6) back in front.
But it wouldn’t take long for Rochester’s newcomers to answer once more.
A one-out single and double put two in scoring position for Jason Swan, who knocked a sacrifice fly to right field to tie the contest at 3-3. And Cruz’s single put the Honkers up for good.
“I knew that he was having a tough time trying to find the strike zone, so I was just trying to wait on a good pitch,” Cruz said.
Rochester then used some nice glovework to seal its victory. The MoonDogs got two on in the eighth with a pair of infield singles, and Jack Costello’s line drive seemed destined to bring at least one in.
But Honkers shortstop Miguel Santos leapt and snagged the screamer, doubling off a runner in the process to quash the threat.
And the sterling defense from the new arrivals continued in the ninth. Santos grabbed another liner. Swan ranged back and picked off a pop-up. And Colette caught one last fly at the wall to secure the win for revamped Rochester.
“If the games are clean like that, and we’re able to sustain that on a consistent basis, that’s how you start to build a winning season,” Weidner said.
The Honkers host Mankato (9-6) again at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at Mayo Field.