Defense leads Smokies to 2-1 home victory
KODAK — Starting pitcher Pierce Johnson didn’t have his best stuff Sunday against the Huntsville Stars, but the Tennessee Smokies right-hander didn’t need it.
A solid bullpen, defense and a few key hits is all it took for Tennessee to pick up its first win over the Stars, 2-1 in front of 3.041 fans at Smokies Park.
“Pierce was not very sharp today,” Smokies manager Buddy Bailey said. “It was just one of those games where he was out of whack, but he kept battling and battling. He kept getting himself in a bunch of trouble with the walks, but he only allowed the one hit. If we had caught a ball at third base on a steal he wouldn’t have given up any runs, as much as he struggled through it.”
Tennessee (11-13) and Huntsville (15-9) pick up the final game of their five-game series tonight in Smokies Park at 7:15 p.m. The Stars have already secured a series victory by winning the first three games.
While Johnson walked eight batters, he allowed just one hit and one run with a strikeout through his four innings. Johnson’s struggles with control didn’t cost his team, even though each inning was an adventure.
“For a young man in his second start in this league to stand there for four innings that out of whack and still give his team a chance to win tells you the potential he does have,” Bailey said of Johnson. “I think he’ll learn a lot more from today than if it had went nine innings on two hits and a shutout. When you have a bad outing, you can do some soul-searching.”
Where Johnson delivered while fighting with his control, there were no such issues with the Smokies bullpen. Unlike last week when Tennessee’s relievers continually gave up games, Sunday Hunter Cervenka and Armando Rivero teamed up for five pristine innings. Cervenka (2-0) picked up the win on the hill with one strikeout. Rivero grabbed his fourth save with two perfect innings and three strikeouts.
“Cervenka was as good as I’ve seen him in this league in two years,” Bailey said. “He gave us three perfect innings and then Rivero came in and did the same thing. When you get five perfect innings out of your bullpen it’s hard to lose.”
Huntsville took the early lead in the top of the first. Johnson walked Stars second baseman Josh Prince to lead off the inning.
Prince stole third two batters later thanks to a dropped ball from Smokies third baseman Dustin Geiger. Geiger would make up for the mistake before the game was over. A sac fly from Mitch Haniger put Huntsville up 1-0.
The Smokies tied the game in the bottom of the second. Rafael Lopez opened the inning with a double, his eighth of the season. Geiger pushed Lopez to third on a long fly ball. Lopez scored on a wild pitch on the very next at-bat.
Geiger put Tennessee ahead for good in the seventh with his fifth home run of the season over the left field fence.
“In a tie game he (Geiger) was able to get a head out and get the home run,” Bailey said. “I wasn’t sure it was going at first with the wind that had been blowing out, but he was able to get it through.”
-By Adam Greene, Tribune Correspondent