The gap between the first-place Tar River Bandits and the second-place Edenton Steamers has tightened — and is likely to get tighter, as the River Bandits will be losing six players over the next week.

“The Canadians have been called back (because of COVID) and the Ivy League, which didn’t play this year, wants a strong fall league, so Dartmouth has told our guys they need to go back,” explained River Bandits coach Vince Fondacaro.

That means Tarboro will be losing six players — including five pitchers.

The River Bandits (21-10, 14-7 will be losing Canadian infielder Ben Jones and pitchers Russell Derbyshire, Julian Parson, and Ben Roberts and Dartmouth pitchers Luke Carpenter and Jack Metzger.

“We’re going to be looking for pitchers at a time when there aren’t many pitchers (moving around),” Fondacaro said.

And it couldn’t come at a worse time.

What was once a four-game lead over Edenton (16-11, 10-8) is now down to 2 1/2-games — and the two teams will face each other four more times, including three in Edenton, before the end of the season.

And up until now, the two teams have played even, splitting eight games with each having success on the other’s home turf.

In game two of Thursday’s doubleheader, Tarboro got a much-needed boost when center fielder Jackson Cherry (Mercer) took a one-ball pitch from reliever Ben Coffman (Bluefield State) over the center field fence for a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Cherry’s blast gave the Bandits an 8-7 win after they had fallen behind 7-6, in the top half of the frame.

The win snapped a three-game losing streak to the Steamers that had featured anemic hitting and an inability to close. Tarboro blew a four-run lead to lose 10-6 on Saturday, allowed five runs in the ninth to lose 8-4 on Wednesday and were blown out 10-0 in game one of the doubleheader.

“I’d lose all my money in the stock market because of the emotions of the highs and lows,” Fondacaro said. “I just told the guys that you’ve just got to stay focused and not let the highs and lows take you out of your game.”

Tarboro managed just two hits in game one — a single in the fifth and another in the seventh after the game was well out-of-hand — after being limited to just four hits in the Wednesday loss.

In Edenton on Wednesday, Tarboro took a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth when a pair of infield errors moved Will Smith (UT-Martin) into scoring position at third with two outs and pinch-hitter Levis Aguila (Felician) singled to left to drive him in.

The Bandits couldn’t hold serve, however, as relief pitcher Ryan Insco ((UT-Martin) opened with a hit batter before being victimized on back-to-back errors.

A single tied the game at 4-4 and an attempt by Edenton to win was snuffed at the plate when left field Nick Hussey (NJ Tech) threw Chase Bruno (Montreat) out at the plate with Aguila applying the tag.

After recording the second out, Tarboro committed its third error of the inning before Insco walked a batter to load the bases for Josh Pernetti (San Joaquin Delta College) who took a 1-2 pitch over the scoreboard for a grand slam and the 8-4 win.

In Thursday’s game one, Edenton battered four Tarboro pitchers for 10 runs on 11 hits including three home runs.

Tarboro started Parson on the mound, brought in Luke Allain (Bucknell) in the fourth, Eli Culbreth (transfer portal) in the sixth, and Brantley Cutler (East Tennessee) in the seventh.

Cutler, who was the CVCL MVP a year ago, is carried as a right fielder and hadn’t pitched since striking out three in 1.2 innings last year, according to Telegram stats.

He wasn’t as effective against Edenton, allowing a single and issuing a walk, but he was the only Bandit pitcher to keep the Steamers off the scoreboard.

In game two, Edenton scored single runs in the first, third and fourth innings to take a 3-0 lead, but Tarboro came back with three in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game.

Hussey and Kendal Pierson (Bucknell) opened with almost identical Texas Leaguers to right-center with Pierson’s driving in Hussey, who had taken second on a passed ball and was on the move when Pierson got his hit.

After two outs, Anthony Sherwin (Bucknell) walked, followed by a two-RBI Texas leaguer to right-center by Will Smith (UT-Martin) to tie the game.

Edenton then took a 4-3 lead in the fifth before the Bandits plated three in the bottom of the frame.

As in the previous frame, Jones and Aguila opened with back-to-back Texas Leaguers to center before Hussey struck out.

Then, on a 1-2 count. Pierson hit a three-run shot over the left-center field fence to make it 6-4 after five.

That score stood until the seventh, when Edenton put together two walks and a single — along with a bang-bang play at third where the baserunner looked to be clearly out but was called safe — to go back on top, 7-6.

When that third run crossed the plate, you could almost feel the air go out of the ballpark, but the Bandits, who had battled all game long, had three more outs.

They wouldn’t need them.

Hassert was hit by a pitch to open the inning before Pierson struck out and pinch-hitter Jack Culomovic flew out to left on a two-ball count to set up Cherry’s walk-off blast.

THE SCHEDULE — Tarboro was at Edenton on Friday and will play Peninsula in Hampton, Va. on Saturday before returning to Edenton on Monday. The River Bandits then host Greenbrier on Tuesday and Wake Forest on Wednesday before hosting the All-Star Game on Friday and traveling back to Edenton on Saturday.

The River Bandits will close with five straight home games to end the regular season on July 28.