Game 5 box score
Audio: Stars punch return ticket to Finals
Audio: Hernan Iribarren smacks a homer
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When it mattered most, Huntsville's Don Money showed why he was voted Southern League Manager of the Year.
Money's strategy helped the Stars escape a ninth-inning jam as they held off visiting Tennessee, 8-7, on Monday in the fifth and decisive game of their first-round playoff series.
"Things got very interesting in the ninth," said Money.
With the Stars (3-2) leading, 8-6, entering the final frame, Money called on hard-throwing closer Luis Pena, who walked leadoff batter Eric Patterson before getting pinch-hitter Nate Spears to pop out.
Casey McGehee followed with a single and Tyler Colvin laced a run-scoring double before Pena intentionally walked Issmael Salas to load the bases for Chris Robinson, who had doubled in the eighth.
"I walked [Salas] to see if we could get the double play," said Money, who didn't consider replacing Pena with the game on the line. "No, he was our closer and we were going with him until the end."
The skipper's faith was rewarded when Pena fanned Robinson and got Gary Cates to hit into a series-ending forceout, giving Huntsville a return trip to the Southern League Finals.
Hernan Iribarren, who hit .429 (9-for-21) during the series, helped cut into a 5-1 deficit with a two-run homer off Smokies starter Mitch Atkins in the third.
"He left the ball up and I hit it well," said Iribarren, who had gone deep just 19 times in 2,069 regular-season Minor League at-bats. "That was the difference in the game. It was a huge hit."
His manager agreed.
"Iribarren's two-run homer got us back in the ballgame," said Money. "It was a very important hit."
The re-energized Stars scored two runs in each of the next two innings. Michael Brantley hit an RBI groundout and Alcides Escobar ripped a game-tying single in the fourth. Adam Heether led off the fifth with a single, took second on Steven Sollmann's walk, went to third on Brendan Katin's sacrifice and scored on shortstop Robinson Chirinos' throwing error.
Guilder Rodriguez followed with a sacrifice fly to give Huntsville a 7-5 lead and Ryan Crew provided insurance with a sacrifice fly of his own in the seventh.
Stars reliever Robert Hinton (1-0) picked up the win after tossing a perfect fifth. Starter Steven Hammond surrendered five runs on six hits and a walk with two strikeouts in four innings. Pena notched the save, despite giving up a run on two hits and two walks with one strikeout in 1 1/3 frames.
Smokies reliever Jesse Estrada (0-1) took the loss after giving up two unearned runs on one hit and two walks with one strikeout while recording two outs. Atkins was reached for five runs on seven hits while striking out three and walking one in 3 2/3 innings.
McGehee ripped a three-run homer, his second of the series, in the third. Cates hit an RBI single in the second and Chirinos brought Tennessee (2-3) within striking distance with an RBI base hit in the eighth.
Huntsville will try to avenge last year's championship series loss to Montgomery in a Finals rematch beginning Wednesday.
"Last year they beat us," said Iribarren. "We're going for payback."
Ryan McConnell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.