SPRINGDALE, AR - Naturals fans didn't have to wait too long to avenge last season's first-round playoff sweep. Kurt Mertins' two-out chopper in the bottom of the ninth glazed over the glove of Springfield Cardinals' third baseman Joe Mather and sent pinch-runner Jose Duarte sprinting towards home as the winning run as the Naturals beat the Cards 2-1, completing a three-game sweep in the Texas League North Division Series.
Designated Hitter Vance Wilson led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk issued by Springfield reliever Chuckie Fick (0-1). Wilson was lifted in favor of the pinch-runner Duarte, who moved to second on a nicely placed bunt by Cody Clark, who reached safely when first baseman Andrew Brown was ruled off the bag.
After Marc Maddox popped out attempting a bunt, Jarrod Dyson's grounder to short shifted both runners over a base, putting two runners into scoring position for Mertins. The Naturals' second baseman worked the count full before sending the chopper in the direction of the third baseman Mather, who misplayed it for his second error of the game. Duarte came home safely as the Naturals bench emptied on the field and erupted into celebration.
Northwest Arkansas put the first run on the board in the first. Jeff Bianchi doubled to left with two out and Ed Lucas followed with his own double that landed in virtually the same spot, scoring Bianchi for the 1-0 lead. David Lough drew a walk, but Corey Smith grounded out as the Naturals were held to just the lone run.
That would hold up until the third, when Springfield was able to tie the ballgame, capitalizing on the lone error made by the Naturals. Colt Sedbrook led off with a single and moved to second on a groundout by Daryl Jones. Pete Kozma followed for the Cards and lifted a fly to center which was misplayed by Jarrod Dyson, scoring Sedbrook.
After scoring 18 runs in the two games in Springfield, the Naturals' bats seemed cold for most of the game, as opportunities to break the game open were squandered by an offense that was 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left ten runners on base.
Not much of that mattered, however, as Naturals' southpaw Rowdy Hardy had Springfield's bats chilled even further, limiting the Cardinals to just three hits in his outing. He lasted 7 1/3 innings, walking two and fanning six in a no-decision.
His mound opponent, Brandon Dickson, was equally effective through seven frames of work, allowing six hits and two walks while fanning four.
Blake Wood (1-0), who came on with one out in the Cardinals' eighth, was credited with the win. He allowed a single to Pete Kozma, the first batter he faced, but nothing more in a 1 2/3 innings of relief. Kozma was cut down attempting to steal almost immediately, the second of two runners thrown out by Naturals' catcher Cody Clark on the evening.
The Naturals will have to wait at least one more day to find out who their opponent for the Texas League Championship will be. Friday evening the Midland RockHounds took a 2-1 lead in the South Division series by holding on for a 6-5 win over San Antonio. No matter who wins, games one and two of the Championship will be at the site of the South Division series winner on Tuesday evening. All playoff games can be heard live on KURM 790 AM and online at www.kurm.net.
The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and play at state-of-the-art Arvest Ballpark, located in Springdale. The Naturals have a toll-free ticket hotline (1-877-444-2637) for fans to purchase Naturals tickets. Our website, nwanaturals.com offers fans the opportunity to purchase tickets online and avoid lines at the ticket windows by printing their tickets at home or at the office.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.