Johnson fires Smokies to 4-1 victory
Tennessee Smokies pitcher Pierce Johnson fires a pitch during Sunday’s win over the Pensacola Blue Wahoos at Smokies Park.
KODAK — Tennessee Smokies starter Pierce Johnson may have lost his no-hitter in the sixth inning against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos Sunday, but his performance on the mound ensured the Smokies wouldn’t lose the game.
Johnson pitched six near-perfect innings on the way to a 4-1 Smokies win in front of 4,172 fans at Smokies Park.
“Pierce made it look easy,” Smokies manager Buddy Bailey said. “He is one of the stories of the game.”
The win helps the Smokies (22-20, 55-58) stay neck-and-neck in the Southern League North with the Birmingham Barons. Tennessee and Pensacola (17-27, 48-66) pick up game five of their five-game series tonight at Smokies Park at 7:15 p.m. It’s the rubber game between the two teams with the series tied 2-2.
The Smokies got on the board early thanks to lead-off walk from Pin-Chieh Chen. With a runner on second, Addison Russell sent a fastball into the new Calhoun’s at the Yard party deck to give Tennessee a 2-0 lead.
“If they bring a fastball in on the inside, his (Russell’s) hands are like a cobra the way the snap on it,” Bailey said. “He hasn’t missed it. It’s where all his home runs have been.”
The score would stay that way for the next four innings as Johnson and Pensacola starter Robert Stephenson (5-8) traded zeroes.
Johnson was a walk away from working on a perfect game until the sixth until Stephenson broke it up, dribbling a base hit between second and third base in the only place Russell or third baseman Christian Villanueva couldn’t reach it.
“I think he (Johnson) was trying to throw a breaking ball in the dirt and just didn’t hit it,” Bailey said. “I don’t think he can second-guess himself. If you look over his three outings since he’s came back, he’s given up three runs in about 20 innings. He’s really stepped up to become one of the main guys at the front of our rotation. He’s pitching at a high level and in total command of the situation and himself. It’s good for him and the organization. He’s doing it at the right time of the year.”
Johnson gave up another hit in the seventh and Bailey decided to play the odds and go to the pen for Andrew McKirahan, a lefty, to pitch to Rossmel Perez. The strategy worked and Perez hit into a double-play.
“Since Russell’s got here we’ve really picked up our double-plays,” Bailey said. “If you look at our run total allowed, it’s really shrunk. Our defense has gotten better since he’s been here.”
Johnson’s day ended with six innings, two hits, one walk and six strikeouts.
Tennessee put up a couple of insurance runs in the sixth with a two-RBI double from Lars Anderson.
McKirahan went two innings, with one hit and one strikeout. Bailey called on Frankie Batista to finish out the game and that’s where things got interesting. Batista gave up three hits in the ninth and a run, but was finally able to get the final out and end the game.
“I think Frankie took the inning for granted with a four-run lead,” Bailey said. “His warm-ups had very little intensity and it carried over to the game. The way Johnson had been pitching, you felt pretty good with four runs. I would have never thought we’d be facing the tying run with one out.”
-By Adam Greene, Tribune Correspondent