BRISTOL, Va. – A season that began with a June swoon will end with playoff baseball for the Bristol Pirates.
Tahnaj Thomas pitched five strong innings, while Jake Snider had two hits as the BriBucs collected a 4-2 Appalachian League victory over the Danville Braves on Wednesday night at DeVault Stadium.
Bristol (34-33) opens the best-of-three Appy League West Division championship series on Friday at home against the Johnson City Cardinals (35-33) at 6:30 p.m., an occasion which will mark the first postseason game since 2002 for the franchise. The Pirates also finished with a winning record for the first time since 2008.
Who saw that coming after Bristol dropped a 15-1 decision to the Burlington Royals on Opening Night as part of a 1-6 start?
Thomas didn’t survive the first inning and was tagged with the loss back on June 18.
Needing a triumph just to keep the season alive, Thomas was the winning pitcher on Wednesday as Bristol was victorious in its most important game in 17 years.
The right-hander from the Bahamas was only 3-years-old the last time the BriBucs made the playoffs.
No pressure, right?
“My mindset was just to stay focused,” Thomas said. “It’s a game of confidence and the energy level helps.”
It also helped that his father, Sydney, was in attendance.
“This was like the second time he’s got to see me [in pro baseball],” Thomas said. “This was for him.”
Danville took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning as Cody Birdsong bopped a solo home run off Thomas, but the lead was short-lived as the BriBucs pushed across four runs in the bottom of the second inning to take the lead for good as a two-run double from Jesus Valdez highlighted the outburst.
Yoelvis Reyes, Yordi Rosario and Samson Abernathy closed out a six-hitter on the mound..
Abernathy got Garrett Saunders of the Braves to hit a groundball to second baseman Josh Bissonette, who fired a strike to first baseman Matt Morrow, for the final out and sparked a celebration for the Pirates.
Was it the biggest ninth inning Abernathy had ever pitched?
“With the history involved and stuff,” Abernathy said. “Yeah, that was special.”
The city’s last foray into the Appy League postseason came in 2002 as manager Nick Leyva piloted the Bristol White Sox to a victory over the Bluefield Orioles in the finals.
The last winning record came in 2008 when Bobby Thigpen was the manager and the club compiled a 34-30 mark.
Thirty-four wins were the magic number in 2019 as well.
“It was really a shock that Bristol hasn’t had a winning season since 2008,” said Brent DeFoor, a pitcher that season, said in a Facebook message from his Jasper, Alabama, home on Tuesday. “I remember that year having a winning season was such a big deal to the community of Bristol. … The thing I remember most was it seemed we was always playing in one run or two run games. We never blew anybody out that season. It was our pitching staff that kept it together in those close games.”
The identity of the 2019 Bristol Pirates was that of a team that could overcome adversity and bounced back to achieve big things every time they were written off.
“We’ve been fighting all season,” Abernathy said. “Down to the wire; the last game – it was a good punctuation. We’re a team that finishes what it starts.”
NOTES: Johnson City clinched the West Division title on Wednesday with a 9-7 victory over Kingsport. The Cardinals will host the second and third game of the playoff series with Bristol. … The Elizabethton Twins lost to Greeneville on Wednesday, which marked the first losing season for the franchise since 1988. ... The Pulaski Yankees will play the Burlington Royals in the Appy League’s East Division championship series. … Brad Carter, the longtime scoreboard operator for the BriBucs, threw out a ceremonial first pitch. … A crowd of 775 was in attendance.