Amid the decorative bunting, a ring ceremony and celebratory first pitches that included Indians perfect game pitcher Lenny Barker, the host Aeros kicked off their defense of the Eastern League Championship Thursday night with a 2-1 loss to Binghamton at a revamped Canal Park.
After 16 of the Aeros players received their championship rings in a pre-game ceremony broadcast on a new state-of-the art scoreboard and each of the team’s starters were driven around the warning track in shiny Corvettes before being dropped off at home plate as their names were announced, a pitchers duel ensued.
Aeros starter and designated ace Danny Salazar, who underwent Tommy John right elbow surgery in August of 2010 that limited him to a mere 47 innings over the next two seasons, matched Binghamton starter Rafael Montero for the first four innings.
Salazar sat the BMets down in order in the first inning. After walking leadoff man Rhyne Hughes in the second, he rebounded by striking out the next better and then induced an inning-ending double play to quash the threat. Salazar got a hand by Aeros second baseman Jose Ramirez, who ranged to his left then leapt in the air to nab Daniel Muno’s humpback liner, before tossing to first base to double off Hughes and complete the double play.
Salazar, whom the Indians signed in 2006 as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic, also over came a fourth-inning throwing error by third baseman Giovanny Urshela that allowed leadoff man Cesar Centeno to reach safely by sitting down the next three batters he faced, including two by strikeout.
But the B-Mets finally broke through against Salazar in the fifth inning. Despite Salazar getting the ground ball he needed for a bases-loaded double play that would have short-circuited Binghamton’s rally, second baseman Ramirez dropped a grounder right at him off the bat of Wilfred Tovar. Ramirez recovered in time to get the easy out at first, but Muno scored from third base to give Binghamton a 1-0 lead.
Salazar’s outing was complete after five innings, as he limited the B-Mets to the lone run on two hits, issuing two walks while striking out five. In all, it was a good first career Opening Day start for a player not used to pitching in cool weather and still limited to five innings or 80 pitches.
“It (affected) me a little bit,” Salazar admitted, “coming off Tommy John surgery and getting out in the cold. It was tough between innings and it would take me a little while to warm up.”
But he was able to shake it off and power through, as well as commanding a pitch he’d he thought he might struggle to throw effectively.
“I’d been having problems with my slider,” Salazar said. “But tonight, it was great. All my pitchers were.”
But the B-Mets added to their lead quickly against reliever Cole Cook, taking a 2-0 lead in the sixth inning. The second batter that the 6-foot-6 Cook faced - former Aeros shortstop Josh Rodriguez and Binghamton’s third baseman – smashed Cook’s fastball offering 400 feet to dead center, his solo home run hitting off the batter’s eye as he began to round the bases.
In the meantime, Binghamton starter Rafael Montero (the parent club New York Mets fifth-best prospect according to Baseball America) cruised for much of his outing. The right hander, who signed at age 20 out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, sat down 14 consecutive Akron batters after allowing a two-out single to Carlos Moncrief in the first inning. But Aeros center fielder Tyler Holt stopped the streak by lining a single into center field to lead off the sixth.
The hit not only put an end to Montero’s dominance, but his fine outing as well as manager Pedro Lopez called for help from the bullpen. Montero’s line was even better than Salazar’s, as he held the Aeros to one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings. However, he one-upped his mound mate in not walking a batter and striking out eight.
“Not only was Montero commanding his fastball, but his secondary pitches were very good,” new Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “He was throwing that breaking ball, I think it was a slider, on 3-2 counts for strikes. It doesn’t matter where you are pitching, if you can throw that for a strike, chances are you’re going to be successful – and he was doing that.”
But just like the B-Mets did in the previous inning, the Aeros went right after Binghamton’s bullpen as reliever Adam Kolarek took over for Montero. Ramirez, the first batter Kolarek faced, lined a single up the middle for his second hit of the night, this one scoring Holt to cut the visitor’s lead to 2-1.
The Aeros attempted to stage a rally in the bottom of the ninth, but after leading off with a single, Ramirez was stranded at second base when designated hitter Chun Chen struck out to end the game.
“Salazar and the rest of the pitchers did a good job,” Edwin Rodriguez said. “The pitching was good, the tempo was good and the first-pitch for strike was good, so they were attacking the hitters. It was a lack of offense that (did us in).”