KODAK – Smokies starting pitcher Pierce Johnson spun six scoreless innings and relinquished only two hits while tying a single-game season-high with eight strikeouts and was supported by a three-run sixth frame as Tennessee clinched the series with a 4-2 victory over the Mississippi Braves on Thursday evening at Smokies Stadium.
The triumph was also the third consecutive over the M-Braves for the Smokies, who took over first place in the second half North Division standings with an 18-16 mark. With the defeat, Mississippi fell to an even 17-17 record since the midpoint of the campaign.
Johnson (6.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 8 SO) was stellar in his six innings of work, and faced the minimum through his final four frames. The eight strikeouts tied a single-game season-high, matching the eight punchouts the 23-year-old accumulated on May 8 at Birmingham.
CF Kyle Wren was the lone M-Brave to reach base in that span by leading off the sixth with a base hit, though he was promptly picked off by Johnson. The 23-year-old would then induce a fly out to right and snag a hard comeback line drive right back to the mound to end his strong outing.
After allowing Mississippi to strike first in the opening frame in each of the first three games of the series, this time it was Tennessee’s turn to do the honors. After SS Addison Russell reached on a two-hit single, 1B Lars Anderson would smash a run-scoring double into the right-center field gap to plate Russell give the Smokies the early 1-0 advantage.
All would remain quiet until the sixth, when Johnson got additional insurance courtesy of a three-run rally. After Russell and Anderson both singled, Russell would come across on 3B Christian Villanueva’s RBI base knock to center to double the advantage. Villanueva then subsequently scored along with Anderson on 2B Stephen Bruno’s two-run two-bagger to right to increase the margin to 4-0.
The M-Braves would get one of those tallies back in the seventh to end the Smokies’ shutout hopes. SS Daniel Castro drew free pass to start the inning, then moved to second and third on back-to-back groundouts before being sent in C Braeden Schlehuber’s RBI double to left, cutting into Tennessee’s advantage at 4-1.
Mississippi made it a two-run game by following with a single tally in the next inning. 2B Jose Peraza began the eighth with a base hit to right, stole second and then advanced to third on a groundout, before coming home by taking advantage of a Smokies fielding miscue, decreasing the M-Braves’ deficit to 4-2.
Smokies reliever Jeff Lorick (0.2 IP, 1 H) received his team-leading ninth hold of the year, while closer Frank Batista (1.1 IP, 1 H, 2 SO) notched his sixth save in seven opportunities with the club. Mississippi starter Ryan Weber (5.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 3 SO) suffered the loss after yielding four earned runs on eight hits in 5.1 frames pitched to fall to 3-4.
Russell (2-4, 2 R) and Anderson (2-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI) would each collect two base knocks in the contest to lead Tennessee hitters, while no Mississippi batters were able to record a multi-hit effort. The two-hit game for Russell was his fifth since joining the Smokies after being acquired by the Cubs in a trade with the Oakland Athletics, while Anderson was transferred to Tennessee earlier in the day from Triple-A Iowa.
The two clubs are slated to wrap up their series Friday night at Smokies Stadium, with a start time of 7:15 p.m. scheduled. The Smokies are expected to give the ball to LHP Jeffry Antigua (0-1, 2.78) in the series finale, while the M-Braves are slated to send RHP Mitch Atkins (5-0, 4.11) to the hill.
The series goes out with a bang with Friday Night Fireworks, presented by Pepsi, Coor’s Light, Knoxville News Sentinel, WVLT and WIVK. The skies will ignite with the special pyrotechnics display following the completion of the contest.
Tickets for that game and the remainder of the Smokies’ 2014 home schedule are still available and can be purchased online at smokiesbaseball.com, or by calling the Smokies Ticket Office at 286-2300.