Smokies starting pitcher Pierce Johnson blanked Huntsville over four innings to extend his scoreless innings streak to 19.0 frames, while relievers Matt Loosen, Andrew McKirahan and Frank Batista combined to shut out the Stars 2-0 and keep Tennessee in first place in front of 6,556 fans on Friday night at Smokies Stadium.
The victory maintains Tennessee's one-game lead over the Chattanooga Lookouts in the North Division second half standings, and improves their record to 28-26. The defeat dropped Huntsville's second half mark to 25-29 since the midpoint of the 2014 campaign, and also clinches a series victory for the Smokies.
Tennessee got on the board first via single tallies in the first and second frames. RF Pin-Chieh Chen began the initial inning with a double to right-center, and later moved to third on a groundout, before coming plateward when SS Addison Russell reached on a fielder's choice.
It was 3B Christian Villanueva who started off the subsequent inning with a base hit before taking second on C Charlie Cutler's single, before being brought home on 2B Stephen Bruno's run-scoring base knock to center to make it a 2-0 ballgame.
Smokies starter Pierce Johnson (4.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 7 SO) extended his scoreless innings streak to 19.0 with four shutout frames, though he did not factor in the final decisions. Dating back to July 29, the right-hander has yielded seven hits and six walks while fanning 25 over those 19.0 innings, the highest consecutive scoreless streak by a Tennessee hurler this season.
Tennessee relief man Matt Loosen (3.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 1 SO) supported Johnson with three strong frames to preserve the shutout, yielding only one hit and one walk, while southpaw Andrew McKirahan (1.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB) and closer Frank Batista (1.0 IP finished the job with the final two innings. Loosen earned his fifth victory of the season, while Batista notched his tenth save.
Huntsville starting pitcher Austin Ross (5.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 SO) suffered the loss after allowing two earned runs on four hits, adding seven punchouts, to fall to 0-2. Stars relief pitchers Eric Marzec (2.0 IP, 1 H, 3 SO) and Kevin Shackleford (1.0 IP, 1 H) joined forces for the last three scoreless frames to keep Huntsvile's deficit to two.
Bruno (2-3, 1 3B, 1 RBI) was the lone Smokies hitter to record two base knocks in the contest, while no Stars hitters collected a multi-hit effort. SS Addison Russell (0-4, 1 RBI, 1 SO) went hitless in the contest to snap his seven-game hit streak, though he did drive in a run.
In a series dominated by web gems, Smokies RF Jae-Hoon Ha made a game-saving play in the top of the eighth to keep Tennessee ahead. With runners at first and second and two outs, Stars 1B Nick Ramirez lifted a deep fly ball to right, but Ha leaped at the wall and snatched away a possible go-ahead home run to keep Huntsville off the board.
It was also the second consecutive shutout victory for Tennessee after blanking the Stars Thursday night in a 1-0 victory. The club accomplished that feat on one prior occasion in 2014, holding the Jacksonville Suns scoreless between June 6-7 at Bragan Field in Jacksonville.
The Smokies and Stars are set to face off for the final time in the regular season in Saturday's series finale, and first pitch is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. Tennessee is expected to give the ball to RHP Ivan Pineyro (0-2, 4.30), while Huntsville is slated to send LHP Brent Suter (10-8, 4.07) to the hill.
Fans will want to arrive early Saturday, as the first 1,500 fans will receive a Kris Bryant Bobblehead courtesy of Vanderbilt Mortgage Finance, Tindell's Building Materials, WBIR and Q100, in honor of the former Smokies slugger. In addition, the players and coaches will be donning special throwback jerseys to honor the 1977 Cubs, with the jerseys to be auctioned and raffled off during the contest. The party continues after the game with the Smokies Saturday Night concert series, as the Leon Thomas Band will be performing post-game, with drink specials available as well.
Tickets for that game and the remainder of the Smokies' 2014 home schedule are still available and can be purchased online at smokiesbaseball.com, or by calling the Smokies Ticket Office at 286-2300.