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Staff photo by EMILY BARNESBrandon Pinckney bunts the ball as Long Island catcher J.R. House watches.
Ryan Mulhern's bat is more than just hot these days. It's also extremely clutch.
And that lethal combination from the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs first baseman made him the difference-making weapon offensively in sinking visiting Long Island the first two encounters of a marquee three-game series at Waldorf's Regency Furniture Stadium, as both teams are neck and neck atop the Liberty Division in the Atlantic League.
Tuesday's series opener saw Mulhern deliver a pivotal two-out, two-RBI triple in what was a one-run affair that provided the Blue Crabs with just enough cushion in a 4-0 victory, doing all of their scoring in the sixth inning.
And that was only a precursor to Mulhern's increased clutch heroics Wednesday in what turned out to be a rain-shortened game after the minimum five innings to become official.
With the Blue Crabs trailing 2-0 going into the bottom of the fifth, Mulhern tattooed the first pitch he saw in the form of a cut-fastball over the left-field wall for the deciding three-run home run in a 4-2 comeback win.
The Blue Crabs added another run in the fifth on Casey Benjamin's two-out triple, then intentionally ended the frame when Benjamin was tagged out on an attempted steal of home as the heavy rains already were starting. About 30 minutes into the rain delay following the conclusion of the fifth, the game was called, giving the Blue Crabs the series win.
"You know, from my walk on deck to the box, I was thinking, The rain is probably going to make this our last shot," Mulhern said of his mindset as he approached his fifth-inning at-bat Wednesday with teammates Christian Lopez and Travis Garcia on first and third, thanks to a leadoff hit and a Long Island error on a botched force out at second base. "Everything happened so quick [with us scoring the three runs]. I knew a sac fly was not going to do anything or a base hit. We needed three [runs]. It happened so quick, and then I didn't think the rain was going to get there that quick."
The Blue Crabs, which moved into first place Wednesday with an 11-5 record by a half-game over Long Island (11-6) on the strength of their five-game win streak, were bidding for the series sweep Thursday in a contest that finished too late for inclusion into this edition.
A sweep would have been ultimate payback for the Blue Crabs losing all three in a tightly played series at Long Island, getting outscored by a combined 11-7 in those games.
"At the start of the year, I was trying to do too much, trying to hit the ball too hard. At times now that I'm not trying to hit it hard, I do and they have been timely hits, which is pretty cool," said Mulhern, who entered the latest series against Long Island on the heels of going a boiling 6 for 12 in a three-game sweep at York. "I haven't really thought about it as me being hot."
In Mulhern's previous five contests entering Thursday, he belted four homers with an explosive 13 RBIs and seven runs scored while boasting a .444 average (8 for 18) with a five-game hit streak to carry the team offensively.
His 17 RBIs made him the league leader through Wednesday, while his five homers were tied for second behind Garcia's six.
The first-year Blue Crabs player, coming over from Lancaster, added, "RBI-wise, I'm kind of surprised [by how many I have]. That's the only thing that jumps out, and that just goes to our team. We have a great lineup with guys getting up there with guys on base. We're starting to get in a groove with the lineup. It's fun, everyone's a little more relaxed at the plate."
"He's just on fire right now it seems like," Blue Crabs starting pitcher Jason Waddell added of Mulhern. "He's seeing the ball well and just coming through game after game. He's just really clutch right now. If you make a mistake, he's not going to miss it."
Waddell was just as impressive Tuesday, throwing six innings of two-hit ball while fanning five and walking a pair, as the Blue Crabs recorded their second shutout of the young season.
What's becoming increasingly evident is the Blue Crabs' domination at home, raising their record at Regency Furniture Stadium to 7-1 entering Thursday with their only loss coming on opening night by only a run.
"We're really comfortable here, and our hitters love to hit here," Waddell said about his team's home-field advantage.
"[Winning the first two games of the series] is big," Mulhern added. "You don't want to get swept so we want to [get the sweep Thursday] here."
The southpaw Waddell avenged a tough-luck 3-1 loss at Long Island six days earlier with his performance Tuesday. Since allowing those three runs to Long Island in the opening inning of the May 11 game, Waddell has completely stifled the New Yorkers in 10 straight innings of shutout baseball with just three hits allowed spanning into Tuesday's game.
"He's been like that all year. He's just been lights-out so far," Mulhern praised of Waddell, who improved to 1-1 with a quality 2.05 ERA in 22 innings of work this season. "We just haven't put up a lot of hits behind him. He works quick [on the mound], and he's doing his job."
The Long Island pitchers now can relate to their Blue Crabs mound counterparts, having pitching well enough to win Tuesday and Wednesday but only to come away with close losses. That was the plight of the Blue Crabs in all three games at Long Island last week, two decided by a run and another by two.
Entering Thursday, former Blue Crabs manager Butch Hobson had his Lancaster team sporting the league's best record at 11-4 atop the Freedom Division, a half-game ahead of the Southern Marylanders.
Atlantic League standings
(Standings through Wednesday)
Liberty Division W L Pct. GB Streak Last 10
Southern Maryland 11 5 .688 ---- W-5 7-3
Long Island 11 6 .647 0.5 L-2 7-3
Bridgeport 6 8 .429 4.0 W-2 5-5
Camden 5 12 .294 6.5 L-3 4-6
Freedom Division W L Pct. GB Streak Last 10
Lancaster 11 4 .733 ---- W-4 8-2
York 8 6 .571 2.5 L-5 4-6
Road Warriors 5 9 .357 5.5 W-1 3-7
Somerset 4 11 .267 7.0 L-1 3-7