Out at first

Angelo Armenta dives into third against Bluefield on July 8th. The Rays rebounded from a first game lost to the Blue Jays to take the win 8-4 and even the Mercer Cup series 1-1. The two teams square off again beginning on July 13th for a four game series at Bowen Field.

PRINCETON — Since 1992, the professional baseball teams of Princeton and Bluefield have taken each other on each summer for possession of the unique Mercer Cup trophy, the players being spurred on by loyal fans in both cities.

The 2019 edition of the rivalry has gotten off to an intriguing start, and the 11-game series will pick back up this weekend.

The first two contests, last weekend at Hunnicutt Field, resulted in a 7-1 Bluefield win on Sunday and an 8-3 victory by the Princeton Rays the next night.

The visiting Blue Jays had the hot hand in the initial meeting, out-hitting the Rays 13 to 5. Princeton’s troubles were compounded by three errors and an early call to the bullpen as starter Jose Lopez could not get through the fourth inning.

Bluefield’s first and last runs came via solo homers by Spencer Horwitz and Joseph Reyes. Two more runs scored on a third-inning double by Angel Camacho.

Bright spots for Princeton on Sunday included a 2-for-2 performance by Gionti Turner from the No. 9 spot in the batting order, and a 2-for-4 night by Luis Leon, who recorded the only extra-base hit by the Rays that evening.

Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer said immediately after Sunday’s game, “We didn’t play very well. We didn’t play very well in the field, we didn’t swing the bats like we were capable of swinging it.”

“We’ve been hot, we’ve been cold, and this is about as cold as we’ve been. Hopefully, we bounce back tomorrow.”

His words were prophetic. On Monday, the Rays collected 14 hits and every batter in the lineup reached base at least twice to win on their home diamond and even the Mercer Cup Series at one victory apiece.

Leon singled to lead off the second inning, extending a hitting streak to 11 games. He scored to tie the game 1-1 on an RBI single by Jhosner Vargas. Princeton tallied the next three runs to take control of the contest.

Vargas ended his night going 3 for 4 at the plate and driving in three runs.

On the mound, Matthew Peguero improved to 2-0 as an Appalachian League pitcher, striking out six Blue Jays in five innings. He scattered six Bluefield hits and allowed two walks. He gave up two runs – via solo home runs by Reyes and Miguel Hiraldo.

Sheaffer told CNHI sports reporter Eric Walker after the game that it is always important to play well in a game before an off day, which the entire league had on Tuesday for the Major League Baseball All-Star break. It was equally crucial to turn things around after Sunday’s sub-par performance.

“(T)o come out and square the series up was really important,” Sheaffer said.

Bluefield is under the direction of a new manager for the first time since 2011. The new skipper, Luis Hurtado, is well aware of the ups and downs of Appalachian League baseball teams.

“Especially in this league, we’ve been seeing that every game is different,” Hurtado said following Sunday’s game. “So we expect to come over here again and try to do the best that we can do, battle every at bat, trying to pitch every inning – and trying to get the win.”

That sets the stage for four more competitive Mercer Cup contests in a row in Bluefield starting on Saturday.

The Rays wind up a three-night series this evening in Kingsport, in the far western corner of the Appalachian League. The Blue Jays are finishing off a series in Pulaski’s Calfee Park tonight.

Saturday’s game at Charles A. Peters Ballpark – Bowen Field is “Shark Night.” Shark hats are to be handed out to the first 200 children, and cups will be offered to the first 250 fans. The promotions are sponsored by Mefcor Outdoors. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

Reyes will take the field as Appalachian League Player of the Week, after hitting home runs in five of six games from July 1-7.

Sunday’s game, which will include a tribute to the Bluefield (W.Va.) Rescue Squad, begins at 5:30 p.m.

Due to Appalachian League scheduling, Princeton will host four Mercer Cup games this season and Bluefield will be the home team for the other seven.

Bluefield swept the Appy League weekly honors list for July 1-7. In that time period, Reyes hit home runs in four of five games, batted .368, had a 1.000 slugging percentage, recorded 10 RBI, and scored seven runs to claim Player of the Week. Jared DiCesare earned the Pitcher of the Week honor after an outstanding start last Saturday, in which he handled five scoreless innings, gave up just two hits and no walks, and struck out five batters in a 6-2 win over Johnson City.

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