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66ers romp in Finals opener
09/15/2006 2:09 AM ET
VISALIA, Calif. -- In the hours before the first pitch of Game 1 of the California League Championship Series, the town of Visalia was struck by an unusual dust storm that sent many residents indoors.

Maybe the Oaks should have taken it as an omen.

Brent Johnson drove in four runs and the Inland Empire 66ers rapped 17 hits in a 13-0 romp over Visalia on Thursday in the opener of the best-of-5 series.

Johnson, who was 3-for-6 with three runs scored, hit an RBI single during a three-run sixth inning that gave the 66ers a 6-0 advantage. The 24-year-old center fielder delivered a three-run double in the seventh, when Inland Empire scored seven times.

"We took some big swings of the bat," Johnson said. "We really weren't expecting a blowout, especially in the Championship Series."

The 66ers sent 12 batters to the plate in the seventh, with the first four reaching on two walks, a hit batter and a single before Johnson greeted reliever Jarod Matthews with a drive to right field.

The inning was reminiscent of the late rally Inland Empire used against Lake Elsinore on Tuesday to clinch the South Division Finals. Trailing, 5-0, entering the eighth, the 66ers scored nine runs in the final two frames to advance to the Cal League Finals.

"We had a good last couple of innings against Lake Elsinore," said 66ers designated hitter Reed Eastley. "Today, 1-9 in the order, everyone was swinging the bat well and taking good at-bats all night. Hopefully, we can keep it going for the rest of the series."

Johan Limonta went 4-for-5 with a walk, two RBIs and a run scored, while leadoff batter Luis Valbuena was 1-for-4 with two walks and four runs scored for the 66ers. Eastley added three hits and a pair of RBIs for Inland Empire, which scored just six runs in its first three playoff games.

Justin Thomas (1-0) benefited from the barrage and pitched seven strong innings. The 22-year old lefthander yielded three hits and struck out seven as he stretched his postseason scoreless streak to 13 innings.

"Thomas was unbelievable," said second baseman Josh Asanovich, who made one of Visalia's five errors and went 0-for-4 to end his 18-game hitting streak. "He threw all his pitches for strikes and kept everything down in the zone. We just couldn't do anything with what he was giving us."

Oaks starter Christopher Mason (0-2) yielded three runs -- two earned -- on seven hits and two walks while striking out four in in five innings.

Reliever Jino Gonzalez was tagged for seven runs -- five earned -- on four hits and three walks in one inning.

"We have to regroup," Asanovich said. "This was only one game. If a game happens like this, it could happen the same way for us tomorrow. You never know, it's baseball."

Game 2 is in Visalia at 9:35 p.m. ET on Friday. Inland Empire, seeking its first Cal League championship since 2003, will send Andrew Baldwin to the mound. He has been outstanding since joining the team in late August after being acquired in the deal that sent Jamie Moyer to the Philadelphia Phillies. In his one postseason start he threw a complete game to beat Lake Elsinore, 1-0.

"We have to forget about today, but also try to preserve the momentum for tomorrow," Eastley said. "It would be huge to go home ahead 2-0, but Visalia's a great team and they'll comeback tomorrow."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.