HUNTSVILLE – Smokies’ third baseman Kris Bryant hit his Southern League leading 14th home run of the season and veteran starter Joel Pineiro turned in a quality start, but Tennessee lost a one run lead in the ninth and lost the opener of a crucial five game series 5-4 in Huntsville on Monday evening.
The Southern League North leading Stars (34-17) took a commanding seven and half game lead over the second place Smokies (26-24) with the victory. The comeback win also closed their magic number to 12, seven, six and six over Tennessee, Birmingham, Jackson and Chattanooga respectively.
P.J. Francescon worked the ninth for the Smokies and lost a 4-3 lead after allowing two runs in the inning. Francescon (5-3) gave up a leadoff single to Josh Prince to start the inning and after a sacrifice bunt, he uncorked a wild pitch that moved Prince to third.
Francescon then walked D’Vontrey Richardson and lost the lead when Nick Ramirez hit a sacrifice fly to center. The winning run came in on a double to left from Jason Rogers and the Stars escaped with a 5-4 win.
Rogers’ double to left in the ninth was the only hit of the game for Huntsville with a runner in scoring position. Their previous three runs were all brought in on home runs from Ramirez and Mitch Haniger earlier in the game off Pineiro.
Bryant put the Smokies up first in the game with a tape measure home run in the first off Mobile starter Tyler Cravy. Bryant was 2-for-3 in the loss with a walk and a strikeout.
Dustin Geiger helped extend the Smokies lead to 3-0 with a leadoff single in the second. He scored moments later after a fielding error in left on a ball sent out that way by Ha. Kentrail Davis’ error in left helped score the second Tennessee run in the game and a sacrifice fly hit his way by Jeudy Valdez scored the third.
Pineiro cruised through the first four innings without allowing a run, before giving up a two-run home run to Ramirez in the fifth. The home run was Ramirez’ ninth of the season and cut the Tennessee lead to 3-2.
A solo home run from Haniger in the sixth tied the game at 3-3 and was seventh of eight hits allowed by Pineiro on the day. He stayed in the game for part of the seventh and was eventually replaced by Jeff Lorick. Pineiro allowed eight hits and three runs over 6 and 1/3 innings pitched. He did not earn a decision in what was his longest start of the season.
Cravy, on the other side for the Stars, pitched through the sixth and also allowed just three runs. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out six in his start.
Reliever Tim Dillard followed Cravy and kept the Smokies off the board with a perfect seventh inning. Casey Medlen would do the same in the eighth, but the Smokies would rally for one run off Arcenio Leon to take a 4-3 lead.
Leon struck out Bryant to start the ninth and got Charlie Cutler to ground out in the next at bat. Geiger then reached on a two-out fielding error by Rogers and a single to center moved him to second. Pinch hitter Rafael Lopez then singled to left and Geiger scored the go-ahead run for the Smokies in the ninth.
Lopez batted in place of Lorick who pitched an inning and 2/3 between the seventh and eighth. He walked one, struck out two and did not allow a hit or run in his appearance.
Leon allowed two hits and one unearned run over his one inning of work. He also struck out one while earning his second win of the year.
The Smokies, like the Stars, scored their final run on base hit with a runner in scoring position. They were 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded four men on base.
The series continues on Tuesday with game 2 of the five game series. The Smokies trail the Stars by seven and a half games in the North Division standings and look to close that gap with Corey Black (2-4, 3.70) starting opposite Drew Gagnon (4-1, 2.35). The first pitch from Joe W. Davis Municipal Stadium is set for 7:30 PM.