The Charleston Dirty Birds went to great lengths in redefining the word “teamwork” Monday night, and the result was a leg up on the Lexington Legends in the best-of-three Atlantic League South Division playoff series.
The Dirty Birds’ 3-2 win in 13 innings in the series opener at Appalachian Power Park might not have happened if not for a combination of solid preparation, innovative use of available technology and, yes, extraordinary teamwork.
With manager Mark Minicozzi quarantined and unavailable to be at the ballpark because of a positive test for COVID-19, managerial decisions — and there were a ton of them during the 4-hour, 25-minute marathon — were made by text-message exchanges between Minicozzi and a group of Dirty Birds players.
While Minicozzi was watching a live stream of the game from home, he was in constant contact with pitchers Arik Sikula and Alexis Candelario and catchers Francisco Arcia and Alfonso Reda, who were working the phones in Charleston’s dugout.
“We had a lot of people voicing their opinion and we had good leadership group that was in charge of it,” Sikula said. “We were texting with Mark non-stop during the game, going back and forth the entire time, four-plus hours, we were always on the same page.”
The result? A 3-2 walk-off win, capped by Dario Pizzano’s bases-loaded opposite-field single to left, scoring Jimmy Paredes with the winning run and ending the marathon viewed by a crowd announced at 2,647, including a large chunk of fans who stayed around for the scintillating conclusion.
“It wasn’t one person necessarily pulling the strings on every single decision,” Sikula said, “but we were all on the same page. We have a lot of older players, veteran players that know the game so well.”
Many of the decisions centered on Charleston’s use of its bullpen. Facing the Atlantic League’s best offensive team, the Dirty Birds used seven pitchers to get 39 outs.
They combined to throw 177 pitches and limited the Legends — who averaged 7.4 runs per game in the regular season — to five hits and two runs (one unearned) while striking out 16 and walking four.
Dirty Birds starter Arnaldo Hernandez set the tone, allowing just two hits and one run in six innings while striking out nine and walking none. The only run scored off Hernandez came in the top of the fourth, when former Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips lined a single to right that scored Cole Sturgeon, who led off the inning with a double.
Phillips’ success against Hernandez — he also had a hard-hit ground ball out in his first at bat in the first inning — played into the Dirty Birds’ decision to remove Hernandez after throwing just 79 pitches and replace him with Edwin Quirarte.
“There was definitely a lot of decision making based off how players were doing in that game specifically,” Sikula said. “With Candelario, Arcia, Yovan … all veteran guys, we can see the swings and how their hitters were reacting to certain pitches.
“Brandon Phillips squared up a couple of balls against [Hernandez]. We were thinking of pushing [Hernandez] back out for that seventh inning, but with Brandon Phillips leading off, we thought let’s go to our next guy, Quiarte, to give [Phillips] a different look.”
Three pitches later, Phillips was walking back to the Lexington dugout after swinging and missing at strike three.
In two innings, Quirarte allowed just one base runner, a walk that was quickly erased on a double play.
The Dirty Birds were playing with a depleted pitching staff — relievers Mike Broadway (team-high 14 saves) and Jack Weinberger and starter Max Povse tested positive for COVID Monday afternoon and were unavailable, as was starter/pitching coach Elih Villanueva, who had to miss the game due to a separate family medical issue.
That begat a next-man-up approach for Minicozzi and his leaders in the Dirty Birds dugout.
Junior Rincon replaced Quirarte and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning but ran into trouble in the top of the 10th, when Phillips singled, moved to second on a walk and scored on a throwing error by Charleston third baseman Jimmy Paredes.
With no outs and runners on second and third and Lexington threatening to blow the game open, Eleardo Cabrera was summoned from the bullpen to replace Rincon.
After Cabrera retired Roberto Baldoquin on a line out to first base, the Dirty Birds’ brain trust opted to intentionally walk Juan Silverio and have Cabrera face Ben Aklinski — who struck out on a 1-2 pitch for the second out. Tillman Pugh then grounded out to end the inning and keep Charleston down by just one run, 2-1.
In the bottom of the 10th, facing Lexington right-hander Daniel Gibson, Arcia — Charleston’s starting catcher and not one of the fastest runners on the team — drew a one-out walk and signaled to the dugout that it was time for a pinch-runner.
“He [Arcia] made that call; he wanted a pinch-runner, and we all agreed,” Sikula said. “Before the game, Mark made the call that [Matt] Harrison was gonna be our pinch-runner when a situation like that came up during the game. Harrison was gonna be the guy.”
And again it turned out to be smart strategy. Harrison, a 6-foot-4 former Nitro High School and West Virginia State University player with good speed, moved to second on a walk to Rymer Liriano. Then, with two outs and Harrison ready to run on contact, Scott Kelly bounced a single to left, with Harrison scoring the tying run on a bang-bang play at the plate.
That placed the pressure back on the shoulders of the Dirty Birds’ bullpen. Luis Guzman pitched a 1-2-3 11th inning and Dan Kubiuk followed suit in the 12th.
Things got interesting in the top of the 13th, when the Dirty Birds faced another crucial decision.
Silverio led off for Lexington with a single to right and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Tillman Pugh walked, prompting Charleston’s final pitching change — Dakota Freese was brought in to replace Kubiuk.
Sturgeon, the next Legends batter, hit a sharp grounder to first base, where Edwin Espinal made a nice backhanded stop and fired to Dirty Birds shortstop Elmer Reyes for the second out, retiring Pugh.
With two outs and runners at the corners in a 2-2 game, Courtney Hawkins stepped up to the plate for Lexington.
With a base open, should the Dirty Birds walk Hawkins, who led the Legends with 32 home runs and tormented Charleston pitchers all year, or should they take their chances and pitch to him?
Hawkins was hitless in five previous at-bats on the night — two strikeouts, a pop out, a liner to first and a fly to center. He was not on the top of his game.
Again, Minicozzi, Sikula et al. in the Dirty Birds dugout relied on their feel for this particular ballgame.
“Hawkins comes up in a big situation, first and third with Dakota Freese, you might think to intentionally walk the guy,” Sikula said. “But you watch the game and how he was swinging at pitches tonight, he probably swung and missed 10 different times, so you’d rather attack him. He’s got a great case for being the league’s MVP, but you attack the guy based on that day’s performance and how he’s seeing the ball.”
The strategy paid off again. Hawkins swung at all four of Freese’s deliveries, fouling off two of them before whiffing for the third time and ending the threat.
The bottom of the 13th was less about strategy and more about patience and execution. A single and two walks loaded the bases for Pizzano, whose hit put the Dirty Birds in the South Division series driver’s seat, needing a win either Tuesday or Wednesday night to advance to the Atlantic League championship series.
That series begins Friday night at the home of the North Division champion, either Southern Maryland or Long Island. Southern Maryland won the first game 3-2 Monday night in Central Islip, New York, and was home in Waldorf, Maryland, Tuesday looking for the clincher.