PRINCETON — The Rays hit the road this week, first in the cross-town Mercer Cup rivals Bluefield that started off in the loss column, but finished strong with two wins to take the lead in the Mercer Cup series. Only one set of games remain to determine this year’s bragging rights.

The series started last Thursday at Charles A. Peters Baseball Park in Bluefield, Va. where defense and steadfast pitching allowed the Jays to hold on winning the first game 2-1.

First blood went to Bluefield’s David Schneider with a line-drive homer, and there the scores sat, but Princeton returned by the sixth with Jake Guenther hitting a double and bringing home Nick Schnell despite the Jays Joseph Reyes throw home.

The nail in the coffin for the Rays came in the bottom of the sixth with center-fielder Steward Berroa’s solo home run over the right-field wall off of Rays reliever Trevor Brigden who had come in for Jayden Murray.

Game two on Friday picked up the “W” for the Rays and tied up the Mercer Cup standings with a blowout 12-5 victory that started in the sixth with a five-run hit-fest.

The game started out quickly, with both teams picking up more runs than the Thursday night game before the end of the first inning with Jelfry Marte and  Schnell scoring for Princeton, and Bluefield’s leadoff batters Eric Rivera and Leonardo Jimenez clapping back with runs of their own.

Back-to-back sacrifices in the third brought Nate Soria home for a one run lead in the third; but again, Bluefield answered back with three straight singles by Andres Guerra, Justin Ammons and Berroa in the next inning.

The Rays didn’t let that stop them though; at the top of the fifth Princeton’s Angelo Armenta smacked a home run over the fence in right-center field, and picked up four more runs, for a total of six before a single out was on the books. The Jays finally stopped the Rays with a double-play and sent 11 batters in a row back to the bench in the late innings; but the Rays came roaring back in the ninth, scoring four more times.

The final game of the series was another dogfight between the rivals, but the Rays held on after a blowout start early, scoring 11 runs in the early innings and winning 11-10 closing the gap and coming within one game of clinching the Mercer Cup.

Over 1,000 people came to see the cross-won rivals compete in the exciting battle for hometown bragging rights.

Princeton’s Schnell started the evening off right with a quick homer to left center field in the first. Combined with a rough start by Jay’s pitcher Roither Hernandez, who gave up seven hits and two homers to the Rays and was pulled in the third, allowed the Rays to build an 11-6 lead by the fourth.

The starting pitchers for both teams were roughed up in the early going. Seth Johnson lasted just one inning for the Rays, allowing five hits and four earned runs. Bluefield’s Roither Hernandez was done in the third stanza after giving up 10 runs, six of them earned.

Bluefield’s attempted comeback in the fourth turned the game into a nail-biter for Rays’ fans. P.K. Morris knocked one over the right-field wall to bring the Jays within two, and the very next inning had Miguel Hiraldo pinging a single to get Rivera home to put the game at 11-10, but that was it for the Jays and the Rays picked up another in the win column.

The final two games in the 11-game schedule for the Mercer Cup will take place Aug. 21-22 in Princeton.

The Rays then headed to Tennessee to take on the Johnson City Cardinals where four runs in the sixth during the opening contest made the final 7-3 at TVA Credit Union Ballpark, on Sunday.

The P-Rays knocked out 10 hits on the night, including a one out solo homer by Nate Soria in the second inning.

Gionti Turner went 2-for-5 with three RBIs to lead the Princeton lineup. Aldenis Sanchez went 3-for-4 for the Rays, while Brett Wisely went 2-for-5.

The Princeton pitchers collectively struck out 14 Johnson City batters.

Taj Bradley got the start for the P-Rays, striking out six and walking three over his 4 1/3 inning shift, allowing two earned runs off five hits. Relief pitcher Bryan Herrera collected the victory, also striking out six and walking three over 3 2/3 innings.

The hits kept on coming and the pitchers held fast to take the second game Monday night 4-2 against the Cards, who are tied with the Elizabethton Twins for the lead in the Appalachian League West Division.

Princeton initiated scoring with an RBI groundout by Schnell in the first inning. The P-Rays made it 2-0 in the second frame on an RBI single by Kevin Melendez.

Wisely put on the last touch of scoring the Rays would need in the third inning, stroking a two-run homer over the right field fence.

Princeton starter Jose Lopez allowed both of Johnson City’s runs, including a solo home run by the Cards’ Diomedes Del Rio in the bottom of the third inning. Brayden Theriot gave the P-Rays 2 1/3 innings’ worth of shutout pitching en route to the victory. Late reliever Bridgen collected his first save, pitching two shutout innings.

Unfortunately, despite managing 12 hits, the Rays could not sweep the Johnson City Cardinals and only scored four runs in a loss Tuesday night at TVA Credit Union Ballpark.

The third and ninth innings were the only turns at bat where the Rays did not get a hit. The Rays could not get the crucial hit as they went two-for-nine with runners in scoring position.

P-Rays starter Aldor Rodriguez lasted three inning giving up four runs on seven hits with four strikeouts. Vincent Byrd made his first pitching appearance for the Rays going three innings with two strikeouts and two runs allowed. Angel Felipe threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts.

The Rays were held scoreless until the fifth inning where consecutive singles were followed by an error on a fielder’s choice to score Yunior Martinez. The Rays top RBI man Diego Infante came through with a two-run homer, his 11th of the season.

The deficit was closed to two runs in the seventh when Marte walked and moved to third on a single by Guenther before scoring on a Soria single.

Guenther led the Rays with three hits while Jhosner Vargas, Armenta and Infante each had a pair of hits against the Cardinals.

The Rays are now 25-28 and are fourth in the the Appy League East. They will stay on the road, after a mid-week break, to take on the Bristol Pirates then the Elizabethton Twins over the weekend in back-to-back three game series, then take on Bluefield for the final two games of the Mercer Cup series to determine the winner.

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