When it comes to pitching, the Aeros have the starting role down pat. Even the pitchers who handle the late innings get the job done most games.
But the Aeros middle relievers? Currently that group remains the team’s Achilles Heel, as Sunday’s 6-4 loss to visiting Erie showed once again.
Starting pitcher Paolo Espino proved to be wildly effective in his five innings of work. The veteran right-hander held the SeaWolves to just two hits and a run while on the mound, and departed with a 2-1 lead that put him in line for the elusive win that would make him the Aeros all time career wins leader.
But Espino, who’s been denied the record for five consecutive starts since tying former Aeros right-hander Jamie Brown (1998-2000), headed to the dugout with two men on after a single and walk. Before he even had the chance to get comfortable on the bench, his fate had been sealed and his place in the franchise history books would have to wait for at least another five days.
Right-handed reliever Trey Haley couldn’t get out of the two-on jam that Espino handed him against the Eastern League’s winningest team. Haley further complicated matters by issuing walks to the first two batters he faced to load the bases and then walk in the tying run to make it a 2-2 game.
The blown save wouldn’t have been so bad save for the fact that Haley didn’t just allow Espino’s runners to score, he managed just one out as the SeaWolves batted around and plated five runs to take a 6-2 lead.
“The bullpen has been struggling lately,” Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “We’re having trouble getting through that sixth and seventh innings – the job of our middle relievers…when you come in out of the bullpen, you have to throw strikes. This is Double-A. There’s no excuse for not throwing strikes.”
Throwing strikes is exactly what 6-foot-6 reliever Cole Cook did. The right-hander, who struggled early in the season, rescued Haley by getting the final two outs of the troublesome sixth and went on to record 2 2/3 hitless innings that gave the Aeros offense some time to catch up.
“Cook did a great job keeping us in the game,” Rodriguez said.
Earlier in the second inning, SeaWolves left fielder Tyler Collins clubbed his ninth home run of the season – a solo shot off Espino that put Erie on the board. But the Aeros (20-230 answered with one homer of their own in the bottom of the inning.
Right fielder Carlos Moncrief blasted a leadoff shot - his second long ball that cleared the large navy blue batters eye that looms in center field (this time towards the right side), to tie the game, 1-1. Moncrief first cleared the 60-foot wall on May 5, a mamouth blast that likely went a little further as it was over 400 feet to straight away center.
The Aeros got to Erie starter Patrick Cooper again in the third inning when shortstop Jose Ramirez led off with a single, stole his league leading 17th base and scored on a double play that gave the host a 2-1 advantage.
In the fourth inning, Espino’s vetern savvy was on display when he managed to escape a jam. With two outs, Espino hit James McCann. He then allowed the catcher to take second on a throwing error on a pick off attempt and moved McCann to third base on a wild pitch. But Espino rebounded from the wild spurt to strikeout first baseman Wade Gaynor and end the threat.
But Espino didn’t have a chance to pull his Houdini act again in the sixth when he was replaced by Haley three batters into the inning. Haley walked in a run to tie the score then dished up back-to-back two-run doubles to Gaynor and designated hitter Luis Castillo before getting the hook.
The Aeros had a chance to chip away at the deficit with Cook keeping the SeaWolves (26-15) at bay. In the bottom of the sixth, centerfielder Tyler Holt led off with a home run over the left field wall that pulled the host to within three runs.
“He threw a change up with a 2-2 count I think and I looked up at the board and it was 81(mph) and I got jammed,” Holt said of his second homer of the season. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m not gonna get a hit.’ But then I (settled down) and relaxed a little more and just reacted to the next pitch and hit it - sometimes it happens where you just get lucky.”
While patroling in the outfield, luck has nothing to do with the way Holt plays. In the seventh inning, he scrambled back, timed a leap perfectly and crashed into the outfield wall as he robbed Collins of a hit. An inning later, Aeros left fielder Quincy Latimore's sacrifice fly scored Holt to pull the Aeros to within two runs, 6-4.
But that was as close as they got, despite getting two on with just one out in the ninth inning against Erie right-hander Tyler Stohr. Not willing to take any more chances on a potential Akron comeback, Seawolves manager Chris Cron halted play and called for his closer.
The move paid off, as righty Justin Souza induced second baseman Justin Toole to hit into a game-ending double play to wrap up the series by notching his ninth save.