One innocent-looking play is all it takes sometimes to turn a baseball game around. Take, for example, the Buffalo Bisons' 7-4 loss to the New Orleans Zephyrs Sunday afternoon at Pilot Field.
A crowd of 15,293 saw Buffalo cruise to a 2-0 lead after seven innings behind some steady and effective pitching by veteran left-hander Jeff Ballard.
In the top of the eighth, Denver's John Finn came up with no outs and Nikco Riego on first via a single. Finn hit a hard grounder to second -- a potential double-play ball. Except, Bisons second baseman Omer Munoz wasn't there. He had broken toward the bag when the ball was hit, and Finn reached with a single.
Exit Ballard, who left with no outs and runners at first and third when there could have been two outs and none on. Enter Bisons closer Tony Menendez to face Jose Valentin, the No. 9 batter in the Zephyrs' order. Swinging on Menendez's first pitch, Valentin tied the game with a triple to right center, sparking a five-run inning for New Orleans.
The Zephyrs tacked on two more runs in the ninth on Valentin's two-run homer off Joel Johnston, giving the New Orleans shortstop four runs batted in and a 3-for-4 day at the plate.
"That's part of the game of baseball," Bisons manager Doc Edwards said of the ball that Munoz lost in the eighth. "A lot of the infielders say the ball is tough to see off the bat here, in the day especially when it's bright and you got all that concrete and stuff in the background.
"I didn't see it at all," said Munoz. "It was a ground ball, right where I was standing. I didn't see it. I heard it and I thought he had pulled it (to the third-base side). I moved to my right and then I saw it going by me.
That play and what it led to for New Orleans ruined a good day (2 for 4) for Munoz. The 27-year-old infielder scored the first two Buffalo runs after doubling in the third and tripling to center in the fifth against winning pitcher Rafael Nova (2-3).
"I'd take 0 for 4 if we win," Munoz said.
Instead of getting his ninth save, Menendez (1-2) took the loss. Ballard was left with a no decision on a day when he deserved a better fate. His stint, seven shutout innings plus two batters in the eighth, was his longest of the season. He struck out five and walked one. The 29-year-old former Baltimore Orioles starter also helped his cause by whirling around to snag Valentin's low line drive in the fifth and doubling Finn off first.
"Ballard did a great job of getting us to Menendez," Edwards said. "Today was one of those days when Tony didn't have his good stuff."
Valentin, who hit a winning grand slam home run against Menendez in a 9-7 Z's victory here May 22, victimized the Bisons reliever again.
"Sometimes it happens that you hit better against certain pitchers or in certain parks," Valentin said. "I faced him last season, too, when he was with Nashville."
Valentin said he got the pitch he was expecting. "I knew he's got a pretty good fastball," he said. "He didn't want to walk me with two runners on ahead by two runs. I knew he'd try to get ahead of me and he gave me a pretty good pitch to hit."
Valentin, who now has three home runs and 17 RBIs for the season, hit his homer in the ninth on a 1-0 pitch by Johnston. The blow came after Johnston -- he now has walked 20 batters in just 10 innings this season -- issued a base on balls to Finn. Valentin's homer hit the right field foul pole and padded the Z's margin to three runs.
Buffalo had pulled to within 5-4 with a two-run eighth, on an RBI single by Russ Morman and a sacrifice fly by Dave Rohde against reliever Mike Ignasiak. The right-hander came in in the eighth after Novoa walked Will Pennyfeather and Scott Bullett to open the inning.
Morman insisted on playing as the designated hitter after leaving Saturday's 7-4 Buffalo victory in the second inning with a pulled groin muscle. Morman had a double and single Sunday but had difficulty running and was booed by some in the crowd when he didn't run hard when he grounded out in the fourth inning.
Edwards said Morman most likely will be given today off when the Bisons face a right-hand pitcher, Jamie McAndrew (1-3) in the series finale. Craig McMurtry (1-1) is the scheduled Buffalo starter for the 2:05 p.m. game.
The Bisons placed third baseman Gary Cooper on the seven-day disabled list retroactive to last last Friday because of continued problems with blurred vision. Cooper is scheduled for more tests in Pittsburgh Tuesday. The move left the Herd one under the 23-player active roster limit. The Bisons expect to get an additional player assigned to them, perhaps in time for today's game.