Smokies drop series opener to Stars 5-2
Tennessee Smokies infielder Christian Villanueva hits a two-run double in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s home game against the Huntsville Stars at Smokies Park. The Stars won 5-2 to move into a first place tie with the Smokies in the Southern League’s North Division.
KODAK — Two bad innings was all it took to cost the Tennessee Smokies the game and sole possession of first place in the Southern League North. The Huntsville Stars scored five runs over two half-innings to beat the Smokies 5-2 in front of 2,832 fans at Smokies Park Tuesday night.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs and any loss this late, you can feel it,” Smokies manager Buddy Bailey said. “We came out and got two runs and before we could hit again we were down 3-2. We didn’t make good pitches there.”
Tennessee (25-26 second half, 58-62 overall) and the Stars (25-26, 71-50) pick up game two of their five-game series tonight in Smokies Park with first place in the Southern League North on the line. Game time is 7:15 p.m.
Felix Pena (1-2) took the loss on the hill and kept his scoresheet clean for the first four innings, though he walked three men. Pena was able to keep the walks from doing any damage.
All that went way in the fifth.
Pena served up a home run to Yadiel Rivera to lead off the inning, then walked Huntsville starter Drew Gagnon. With the runner on, Nick Shaw laid down a sacrifice bunt to get Gagnon to second, then Josh Fellhauer batted Gagnon to third. A single from Nick Ramirez brought in Gagnon. Hector Giminez hit an RBI single to left field that scored Fellhauer.
Pena had given up just one hit in his first four innings, but in the fifth surrendered four, including three in a row before he got the hook.
“He (Pena) didn’t do as well as he did in Mobile (last week),” Bailey said. “Maybe he’s an every other night guy. He’s got to command the ball better. He doesn’t have a 98-99 mile an hour fastball. When you have four walks in four innings it’s going to bite you and it did tonight.”
The Smokies got both their runs in the bottom of the fourth. Gagnon (9-6) walked Addison Russell to give clean-up hitter Lars Anderson a runner to work with. Anderson popped a single to center field and that put two runners on for Tennessee third baseman Christian Villanueva. Villanueva sent his 12th double of the season into left field, scoring Russell and Anderson.
With Villanueva on third and just one out on the board, the Smokies couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to add to the lead. Tennessee finished the game just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
“There just wasn’t enough offense, but somewhere along we have to find a way to win 2-0 games and 2-1 games,” Bailey said. “Unfortunately as we go through the rotation some guys show they have that ability, to go six or seven shut out innings, but the rest are struggling to get there on a consistent basis.”
After the wheels fell off for Pena in the fifth, Smokies reliever Andrew McKirahan struggled as well, giving up three hits and two runs in just 1.2 innings, with a walk and a strikeout. Pena’s final line was 4.1 innings with four hits, three runs, four walks and five strikeouts.
Walks were a problem for the Smokies all game, with the five different pitchers teaming up for nine free bases.
“The whole club has to do what they can do best,” Bailey said. “They don’t have to be great or do all the work. Everybody has to do it. Nine walks and we don’t win when we walk more than two or three. It makes it tough for your hitters too, because they’re standing so much so they can’t get into a rhythm.”
-By Adam Greene, Tribune Correspondent