To say that Tennessee's Eric Jokisch struggled against Birmingham during the regular season would be a gross understatement. The Cubs prospect lost all four of his starts against the Barons, allowing 22 runs on 31 hits over 22 innings.
With the Smokies on the verge of elimination in the Southern League playoffs, however, Jokisch got a little payback Saturday night.
The left-hander gave up two runs on five hits over 7 2/3 innings and Tennessee's bats finally got going in a 9-2 victory at Smokies Park that forced a fourth game in the best-of-5 North Division Finals.
"Birmingham hit me hard during the regular season and it was my fault," Jokisch said. "I was up in the zone too much against them. But I kept the ball down this time and the defense made some great plays behind me."
The Smokies also looked more like themselves at the plate after being held to nine hits while getting outscored, 10-2, in losing the first two games of the series in Birmingham.
Javier Baez, who tied for second in the Minors with 37 homers during the regular season, smashed a two-run blast in the first inning off Barons starter Spencer Arroyo and the Smokies broke things open with six runs in the eighth.
Tennessee never led in the first two games.
"When Javy hit that homer, I think the pressure came off," said left fielder John Andreoli, who joined Baez among four Smokies with two hits. "When we are going well, I think we have the best lineup -- top to bottom -- in the Minors. But we'd been pressing a little bit."
Jokisch wasn't immune to feeling a little pressure himself with the season on the line.
"It was very important to hold [Birmingham] down in the early innings, and getting a quick lead to work with certainly helped," said the Northwestern University product, who struck out four and walked two while throwing 99 pitches.
Jokisch tossed a no-hitter on Aug. 6 at Jacksonville but won just one of his final four decisions to fall to 11-13 with a 3.42 ERA.
"I had a lot of ups and downs," he said. "I got rid of my curveball during the season and had just two pitches for a while. But I gained confidence in my slider and it was good for me tonight."
Baez, who had five homers in 10 games against Birmingham during the season, followed a leadoff single by Matt Szczur by sending a drive over the left-center field fence with one out in the bottom of the first.
The Barons got within 2-1 in the third when Tyler Saladino smashed a leadoff double, stole third base and scored a forceout by White Sox No. 15 prospect Micah Johnson.
The Smokies restored their two-run lead in the fifth as Szczur's sacrifice fly scored Andreoli, who smacked a leadoff double.
Saladino led off the eighth with a triple and scored on a groundout by Johnson -- the last batter Jokisch faced -- to briefly make it a one-run game.
The suspense was over soon, however.
The Smokies scored six times off two Barons relievers in the bottom of the inning, getting a two-run double from Andreoli, a hit batter, an intentional walk and two errors by left fielder Brandon Jacobs.
Christian Villaneuva, who had an RBI single in the eighth, joined Szczur, Baez and Andreoli with two hits. Cody Puckett had three of Birmingham's seven hits.
Arroyo, who was 9-7 with a 3.42 ERA during the regular season, was charged with three runs on four hits over six innings. He struck out four, hit two batters and walked none.
Birmingham lost 22 of its final 32 games to finish the second half 33-37 after taking the first-half title with a 44-26 Mark. Tennessee captured the second-half crown and ended up with a better overall record by percentage points.
"The Chicago Cubs are trying to build a winning mentality and we want to be a part of that," said Andreoli, Tennessee's leading hitter in the playoffs with a .455 average. "We've still got a long ways to go, but this was a start. We want that championship."
Game 4 is Sunday in Tennessee.
In other action:
Mobile 7, Mississippi 6
Raywilly Gomez had a tie-breaking two-run double in a three-run eighth inning and the BayBears -- bidding for a third straight Southern League championship -- took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-5 South Division series.
Mobile, which let an early 4-0 lead slip away, can eliminate the Braves on Sunday as the series returns to Hank Aaron Stadium, where the teams split the first two games.
Edward Salcedo had three hits, including a solo homer, for Mississippi but committed a costly error in Mobile's big eighth inning.
Ender Inciarte collected three hits for the BayBears and Jake Barrett got the final five outs for his second save of the series. Gameday box score»