It looked and sounded like playoff baseball late Saturday night downtown. It even had an ultra-dramatic finish. It’s been a long time since Coca-Cola Field has had that feeling, but things are now set up for the Buffalo Bisons to have a wild August postseason push.
The Bisons opened their biggest series at home since 2007 with easily their most pulsating victory of the season, as catcher Mike Nickeas’ walk-off home run capped a three-run ninth and gave the Herd a 5-3 win over the Pawtucket Red Sox.
A crowd of 10,127 came for Celery Bobblehead Night and were crushed when their favorite stalk got plummeted to the ground by Chicken Wing and lost the nightly race to the Wing to remain winless.
An inning later, baseball took its rightful place and the ballpark erupted like it rarely has in recent seasons. The win pulled the Bisons within a half-game of the PawSox in the International League wild-card race with 31 to play.
The Bisons fell behind, 3-2, in the top of the ninth as Alberto Rosario’s fielder’s choice grounder gave Pawtucket the lead. But Buffalo battled back to tie the game on Ricardo Nanita’s two-out RBI double to right-center.
That brought up Nickeas, a No. 9 hitter who was 0 for 3 on the night and batting .158 on the season. And he was facing 41-year-old Jose Contreras, the Cuban who won 15 games for the 2005 World Series champion Chicago White Sox.
Nickeas quickly swung through two pitches, then got the count even. Then he connected, with the ball soaring high over the left-field fence. Nickeas got pounded by his teammates at home plate and didn’t escape a Gatorade shower as he tried to squirm through the infield.
“That was great,” said a beaming Nickeas. “I felt a ton of love from my teammates and the fans. It was awesome.”
What wasn’t awesome was the postgame word that designated hitter Mauro Gomez, the IL home run leader, pulled a muscle in his side and was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth.
Manager Marty Brown admitted he’s concerned and hopes Gomez can avoid a trip to the disabled list.
Nickeas’ home run was his first in exactly a year – since he went deep here on Aug. 3, 2012 against Syracuse. Nickeas said it was the first walk-off of his life.
“He’s always given me fits as evidenced by the first swings I took,” said Nickeas, who faced Contreras in Philadelphia while with the New York Mets. “But I was trying to hang in there, hit something up the middle and he left one up and I just turned on it.”
“I felt good about him being up there,” said Brown, who eschewed a pinch-hitter.
“I really did. I’ve seen Contreras an awful lot over the years. He’ll make a mistake from time to time, and it was nice for Mike to get a pitch he can handle.”
The Bisons got the game tied in the ninth as Kevin Pillar worked a full-count walk and scampered home when Nanita lofted his double. Nanita came off the disabled list Saturday after a hamstring injury had sidelined him since late June and it was his first hit since June 20.
“I’ve seen this the last two years I’ve had him in Las Vegas,” Brown said. “He’s got an uncanny way of coming up in big spots and putting the bat on the ball.”
The Bisons have 18 home games left, more than any other contender. Although they’re just 26-28 at Coca-Cola Field, they’ve now won four straight at home for the first time this season.
“We’re grinding. We’re in our division the rest of the season and we want to win this thing,” Nickeas said. “We put stuff together like this, it’s just going to push us.”
The Bisons had a winning record only once in four years as a New York Mets (2010) affiliate and have not made the playoffs since 2005, when Brown was in his final year in his first tour as manager.