The top of the standings has been a pipe dream for the Buffalo Bisons most of their previous three seasons with the New York Mets. In fact, the Herd has spent just seven days of that time with at least a share of the International League North Division lead.
It's only 27 games into this season, but it's still pretty significant for the Bisons to finally get atop the herd again. Buffalo took over the top spot in the IL North with Thursday's 6-5 tightrope walk past the Syracuse Chiefs before about 1,000 fans in Coca-Cola Field.
Lehigh Valley gave up four runs in the ninth to lose to Charlotte, 6-5, and that allowed the Bisons to claim first place alone for the first time since May 4, 2010.
"It shows a lot of character from the players and the people the organization has brought in here, knowing we needed to put a good product on the field," said manager Wally Backman.
The Bisons got two runs in the sixth and two in the eighth to overcome a 4-2 deficit. They then survived an error in the ninth as closer Fernando Cabrera gave up a run but struck out Brent Carroll with runners at second and third.
Veterans made big plays as Buffalo went ahead in the eighth. After Brad Eamus singled, catcher Rob Johnson rapped a double to right for his third hit of the night. Valentino Pascucci struck out as a pinch-hitter and Bobby Scales was intentionally walked. Lucas May then pinch hit and barely beat a double-play relay throw to first to allow Eamus to score.
Rottino, who earlier extended his hitting streak to 14 games, then lined an RBI single for an insurance run.
May, a catcher, showed good speed down the line and earned a salute from his fellow catcher.
"To be loose and ready to run in case that situation happened, hats off to him," Johnson said. "That's a big play."
Scales put a lot of pressure on Syracuse second baseman Jim Negrych with his slide and Negrych, the St. Francis product who went 2 for 5 in front of about 50 family and friends, didn't get a lot on his throw.
"We're doing a lot of little things and I think we had the right matchups against the right pitchers," Backman said. "I knew they had to pitch to Pascucci with no outs, I knew they would walk Bobby Scales but I wanted somebody on first base that could break up the double play."
Johnson led the Buffalo attack by going 3 for 4 and scoring three runs, including a solo homer to left-center in the sixth that cut the Bisons' deficit to 4-3. Johnson has improved his batting average to .286 after starting the season 6 for 36.
"I feel confident. I didn't really feel like I had a tough start," said Johnson, who spent all of last year as a backup in San Diego. "Everybody can look at average all they want but when you're squaring up balls right at guys, you can't control that."
The series and homestand conclude tonight at 7 (Radio 1520 AM) with Jeremy Hefner (2-1) pitching for the Herd.
The pitch: Herd snaps 4-4 tie with two-run eighth on May's RBI fielder's choice and Rottino's RBI single. ... Johnson goes 3 for 4, scores three runs. ... St. Francis product Negrych goes 2 for 5 for Chiefs.
Fast fact: Rottino is batting .339 during his 14-game hitting streak.
Next game: Tonight vs. Syracuse, 7:05 (fridaynightbash!, pregame Happy Hour at 5, postgame fireworks)