The offense got started early, pitcher Willy Ortiz started strong, and the P-Rays started the 2016 Appalachian League season with a 7-4 win at Burlington.
The Princeton lineup struck Royals starter Cristian Castillo for three runs – two unearned -- in the top of the 2nd. Bobby Melley led off with a double and scored when second baseman Gabriel Cancel booted a groundball off the bat of Adrian Rondon. Isaac Benard doubled to bring in Rondon; Benard got to third on a wild pitch and scored on Blake Butera’s sacrifice fly.
In the top of the 4th, Benard coaxed a leadoff walk but looked to be stranded at first until Butera and Eleardo Cabrera delivered back-to-back two-out singles, the latter making the lead 4-0.
Princeton staged another two-out rally to stretch its lead to 7-0 in the 5th. Consecutive doubles from Melley and Rondon brought in the first run; after Benard walked, Jean Ramirez and Robbie Tenorowicz each provided an RBI single as the P-Rays appeared to be in control.
Meanwhile, Ortiz retired the first seven Royals batters and allowed only two singles over the first four innings, on an economical 43 pitches. But he faltered in the 5th. With one out, Vance Vizcaino sliced a spinning infield single and Emmanuel Rivera lined a single to left. Ortiz fell behind 3-1 to Jonathan McCray, who launched the next pitch over the wall in right to get Burlington within 7-3.
Ortiz retired Cancel, but walked Nicky Lopez, inflating his pitch count and putting the Princeton bullpen in gear. But the 20-year old got Christhian Vasquez to ground out and turned the game over to the bullpen.
Rays reliever Hector Lopez retired five of the first six batters he faced. But, with two out in the bottom of the 7th, Lopez walked Cancel, gave up an infield single to Lopez and walked Vasquez, prompting a pitching change. Reimin Ramos replaced Ortiz and promptly walked Nathan Esposito to force in a run, but induced a groundout from Chris DeVito and the Rays held a 7-4 lead.
Burlington’s bullpen kept the game close. The trio of Justin Camp, Alex Close (a converted first baseman/catcher making his pitching debut) and Vance Tatum allowed Princeton only three hits over the last 4.1 innings; Close and Tatum combined to strike out five of the last seven Princeton batters.
The Royals got the tying run to the plate in each of the last two innings. In the 8th, with one out, Vance Vizcaino singled and Emmanuel Rivera reached on an error by Rondon at shortstop. But Ramos struck out McCray on three pitches, and escaped when Gustave, in center field, nabbed a rocket line drive from Cancel for the final out. In the 9th, Ramos got Lopez and Vasquez to ground out before giving up back-to-back singles to Esposito and DeVito. But Ramos fanned Logan Gray to end the game. It was Ramos’ first professional save; Ortiz, who got the win, improved to 12-5 for his career.
Benard led the lineup by reaching base four times in five appearances and scoring three runs. Melley doubled twice, drew a walk and scored twice. Cabrera singled twice and walked, Gustave singled twice and Rondon scored twice.
Princeton has won eight of its last ten games at Burlington Athletic Stadium, where the P-Rays and Royals meet again Friday night for the second of their three-game series. First pitch is scheduled for 7:00.