JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – A scenario that seemed far-fetched in June has become a reality in August: The Bristol Pirates are a first-place team.
Josh Bissonette came off the bench to provide some late-inning heroics as the BriBucs took over the top spot in the Appalachian League’s West Division by outlasting the Johnson City Cardinals for a 10-8 triumph on Sunday in a 3-hour, 25-minute slugfest.
Bristol (33-31) leads the West Division with three games remaining as Johnson City (33-32), Kingsport (33-32) and Elizabethton (31-33) are in hot pursuit for the two playoff positions up for grabs.
Entering tonight’s home game against the Danville Braves, the Pirates are one victory away from securing the franchise’s first winning record since 2008 and two more wins would definitely secure Bristol’s first playoff berth since 2002.
Who saw that coming after Bristol suffered a 15-1 loss to the Burlington Royals on opening night and had a 1-6 record after the first seven games of 2019?
“Starting off slow kind of made us a little irritated,” Bissonette said. “As the season’s progressed we’ve become closer as a group and the chemistry of this team is off the charts for a bunch of guys in their first year of pro ball. This team is something special and we’re a pretty close group of guys.”
Bristol showed its resolve on Sunday, erasing an early 4-0 deficit to go up 8-4, watching Johnson City storm back to knot things up and then scoring twice in the top of the eighth inning to take the lead for good.
Bissonette was responsible for the go-ahead run when he entered the game as a pinch-hitter with one out in the top of the eighth inning and successfully executed a safety squeeze bunt to break the tie.
“I had 100 percent confidence in him [to get the bunt down],” said Bristol manager Kieran Mattison. “Those are things we work on. I always tell the guys that teams that execute put themselves in good position.”
You could say that Bissonette was an unlikely hero.
“When I got to the field today the first thing Kieran told me was ‘You’re not picking up a bat at all today,’ “ Bissonette said. “The plan was to give me a full off day to let my body rest and get ready for the playoffs. But I was still just studying and watching the game and I knew that once the game was getting closer I might get an opportunity to go out there for defense.”
Bissonette pinch-hit for Yoyner Fajardo with runners on first and third base. After fouling off the first bunt attempt, the 6-foot, 175-pound infielder from Baylor University got the second one down.
Johnson City relief pitcher Will Guay couldn’t corral the bunt as Eli Wilson raced home and Bissonette reached safely.
Bissonette knows the fine points of laying down a bunt.
“I tell you what, it’s something I’ve done my whole life,” Bissonette said. “I’ve never been the biggest guy and I’ve had to do all the little things right. Whenever I get called on to bunt it’s not a discouragement or anything, it’s just trying to help the team win. I’m glad I was able to do that.”
Bissonette also got it done with his glove as the second baseman was at the center of a game-ending 6-4-3 double play.
Jesus Valdez and Aaron Shackelford supplied three RBIs apiece for the winners, who pounded out 11 hits.
“They are relentless,” Mattison said. “Even after a tough loss they always come in upbeat. It’s a close-knit group and I told them earlier in the season that when you play together it’s hard for other teams to go out and beat you on a nightly basis. That’s what they’ve bought into and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Bristol must first get it done in the season-ending three-game series against Danville (28-37), the last-place team in the Appy League’s East Division. The Pirates won two of three games in the previous matchup between the clubs earlier this month.
“We said in early-August that we control our own destiny,” Mattison said. “We just want to go out and take care of business. We don’t want to be in a situation where we have to rely on other people, because when you worry about what everyone else is doing you lose out on things you need to be doing. We’d rather control what we can control; that’s been our focus and it’s not going to change.”
NOTES: Yordi Rosario (3-0, 3.07 ERA) was the winning pitcher, while Samson Abernathy notched his seventh save. … Right-handed pitcher Matt Eardensohn has been promoted from the BriBucs to the short-season advanced West Virginia Black Bears. He was 1-2 with one save and a 3.63 ERA in seven relief outings for Bristol. … Mateo Gil had two hits and four RBIs for Johnson City. Gil, Chandler Redmond and Todd Lott all homered for the Cardinals. … A crowd of 2,134 witnessed Johnson City’s final home game of the regular season. … The Pulaski Yankees and Burlington Royals have already clinched playoff spots in the East Division. … Johnson City and Kingsport begin a three-game series tonight, while the Elizabethton Twins will host West Division cellar dweller Greeneville. Elizabethton must win its final three games to avoid the franchise’s first losing season since 1988 … Bristol’s game with Danville today at DeVault Stadium begins at 6:30 p.m.