The lead — and the season — got away from the Charlotte Knights on Monday.
Needing a victory to end a six-year playoff drought, the Knights frittered away a four-run lead and dropped a 7-6 decision in 10 innings to the host Norfolk Tides.
It left the Knights and Durham tied in the International League wild-card race with 75-64 records, but the Bulls got the playoff berth, based on a better head-to-head record (12-9) against Charlotte this season.
The Knights had a four-game lead over Durham in the wild-card race a week ago but lost eight of their last nine games, including three games to the Bulls at BB&T Ballpark.
Behind the hitting of second baseman Nick Madrigal (5-for-5) and designated hitter Yermin Mercedes (3-for-4, four RBI), Charlotte built a 5-1 lead Monday in Norfolk. The Tides, who finished last in the IL’s Southern Division, cut the gap to 5-2 with a run in the bottom of the fifth.
Their big rally came in the eighth inning — with two outs.
Jose Rondon and Martin Cervenka earned walks, and Ademar Rifaela tripled to right field, scoring Rondon and Cervenka. Jack Reinheimer doubled to left, scoring Rifaela with the tying run. And Rylan Bannon then singled Reinheimer home with the go-ahead run.
The Knights tied the score in the top of the ninth when Madrigal and Daniel Palka hit back-to-back singles before Mercedes scored Madrigal with a sacrifice fly.
But Norfolk scored the winning run with one out in the 10th. International League rules call for teams to start each at-bat in extra innings with a runner on second base. The Tides designated Rondon to be the runner. He went to third on a Cervenka sacrifice bunt, and after Charlotte reliever Juan Minaya intentionally walked Rifaela, Reinheimer hit a ground ball to shortstop Ramon Torres, who couldn’t make a play. That allowed Rondon to score the game-winning — and Knights’ season-ending — run for Norfolk.
Durham will face the winner of the IL’s Northern Division in the playoff semifinals that begin Wednesday. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Syracuse tied for the Northern title and will have a one-game playoff Tuesday night.
The other semifinal will pit Gwinnett, the Southern winner, against West champion Columbus.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle