One strike away.
That's how close the Buffalo Bisons came Friday night to being alone atop the International League's North Division for the first time this year.
But the Syracuse SkyChiefs haven't been leading this race all season without merit. Thanks to a stunning three-run rally in the top of the ninth, Syracuse handed the Herd a crushing 4-3 defeat to pull back into a one-game lead in the division.
Ryan Freel's bloop single to right-center scored Chris Woodward with the winning run, but that's not the hit that will be remembered from this tense thriller played before a North AmeriCare Park crowd of 19,665.
That honor goes to Syracuse catcher Alex Delgado, a .235 hitter who stuck a dagger in the heart of the Bisons and their fans with a two-out, two-run home run off Ron Villone to dramatically tie the game at 3-3.
"After that, I just knew we would win it," Freel said. "That stuff happens for a reason."
Villone had worked ahead in the count, 1 and 2, and the big crowd was sensing a landmark victory in the Bisons' uphill climb from an eight-game deficit on Aug. 12.
With rhythmic applause urging him on, Villone uncorked a fateful slider and Delgado crushed it deep to left-center for his sixth homer of the season. The crowd fell into stunned silence and many of the SkyChiefs bolted on top of the dugout steps to greet Delgado.
"A bad slider. That's all it was," Villone said. "A bad pitch. I made enough bad pitches and they took advantage of it."
The defeat was even tougher to take when the news came in from Pawtucket. The Red Sox rallied past Scranton, 4-3, by scoring three runs in the eighth and getting a solo home run from Trot Nixon in the ninth.
Thus, the Bisons head to Pawtucket to begin a three-game series tonight (6, Radio 1520) just a half-game ahead of the Pawsox in the IL wild-card race.
"It's frustrating, very frustrating," said Bisons manager Jeff Datz. "We just have to go the Pawtucket and stay positive."
Delgado was 0 for 3 in the game and just 4 for 24 this season against the Bisons until taking Villone deep.
The ninth started when Patrick Lennon singled off Villone. Alonzo Powell then grounded to defensive replacement Brandon Wilson at second, but his throw to Jolbert Cabrera was wide and both runners were safe.
That error didn't seem to matter when Tim Costo grounded into a double play on the next pitch, pushing Lennon to third with two out.
"Ron made quick adjustments to get the ball down and he really got two double-play balls," Datz noted. "We needed to make that first one."
After the home run, the SkyChiefs sandwiched bloop hits by Woodward and Freel around a solid single by Tomas Perez to score the winning run.
"You can't worry about what happened before," Villone said. "You have to play out every at-bat. You've got to make it happen. I didn't make it happen."
Villone, down on injury rehab from Cleveland, entered the game with a 2.14 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 21 innings with Buffalo. He had saved seven of eight chances.
Datz likely would have preferred going to righty Rich Batchelor (20 saves) in the ninth against the SkyChiefs' right-handed lineup, but Batchelor was ill and not used. Still, opponents were hitting just .197 against Villone.
Three Syracuse pitchers combined on a three-hitter, but all of Buffalo's hits were big ones. The Herd took a 2-1 lead in the sixth on solo homers by Jolbert Cabrera and Alex Ramirez (his 30th overall and franchise record-tying 21st at home) after Syracuse's Beiker Graterol entered the inning with a no-hitter.
Buffalo made it 3-1 in the seventh when Todd Betts doubled and was sent home as Perez air-mailed the relay from right-field into the SkyChiefs dugout -- even though Betts had already stopped at second.
Buffalo starter Jason Jacome pitched 7 2/3 innings and was denied a victory that would have pushed his record to 14-2. Until the Wilson error, the Bisons had been spectacular defensively by turning three double plays and making several stellar catches in the outfield.
"One of our best games defensively, no doubt about it," Datz said. "It was a very crisp ball game. Jacome obviously deserved to win. It was unfortunate we couldn't hold the lead."