PEARL, Miss. - Smokies first baseman Dan Vogelbach and third baseman Christian Villanueva combined for five hits and five runs driven in, as Tennessee's early offensive explosion forced a winner-take-all rubber match on Monday afternoon with a 6-3 victory over the Mississippi Braves on Sunday afternoon at Trustmark Park.
The win pulled the Smokies (2-2, 2-2), back to .500 on the season and dropped the M-Braves (2-2, 2-2) back to .500. The victory gave Tennessee just its fourth triumph over Mississippi in their last 12 games at Trustmark Park. A victory tomorrow would give the Smokies their first series victory in Pearl since they took four-of-five against the M-Braves from April 8 to 12 in 2010.
After back-to-back heartbreaking losses, the Smokies wasted no time in grabbing the momentum. CF Albert Almora started the first inning rally with a double down the left field line and RF Bijan Rademacher followed with a line single to right to put runners on the corners. Villanueva (2-5, R, 3 RBI) then jumped ahead of the count 3-1 against Braves starter Jake Brigham (4.0 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO), who took the loss, and ripped a line drive into center field. Almora scored and Rademacher headed to third, as the Smokies grabbed a 1-0 advantage.
The damage was far from over, as Vogelbach (3-5, R, 2 2B, 2 RBI) continued the onslaught. On the first pitch he saw, the Florida native cranked a double into deep right field, scoring both Rademacher and Villanueva putting the Smokies ahead, 3-0. Following an infield single by C Willson Contreras and a walk to 2B Stephen Bruno, LF Anthony Giansanti drove in the inning's fourth run with a fielder's choice
Mississippi came roaring back in the bottom half of the frame, though Smokies starter Rob Zastryzny (3.1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO) kept the Braves at bay. CF Mallex Smith and SS Daniel Castro started the inning with back-to-back singles, but Zastryzny hunkered down. 3B Rio Ruiz lined out to left and 1B Seth Loman struck out swinging for the first two outs before consecutive walks to RF K.D. Kang and 2B Corban Joseph forced home a run. Zastryzny, however, would punch out C Chris O'Dowd to end the threat with the Smokies still on top, 4-1.
Thanks to Villanueva, Tennessee would get that run back almost immediately. SS Elliot Soto and Almora ignited the second inning rally with a single and a walk, respectively, and Rademacher advanced them to second and third with a ground out. Villanueva then smacked another line drive into center, bringing home both runners to extend the Smokies lead to 6-1.
Zastryzyny would then enter cruise control on the mound, with the Cubs' 2013 second round draft pick retiring seven of the next eight batters he faced, including three via the strikeout. Following a walk to O'Dowd, LF Matt Lipka ripped a hard grounder up the middle that deflected off Zastryzny's foot for a base-hit. The former Missouri Tiger would exit the game and give way to Stephen Perakslis (1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO), who would go on to earn his first victory of the season. Pinch-hitter David Rohm walked and Smith brought home a run with a sacrifice fly to center, but that would be all Mississippi would muster in the frame.
Mississippi rallied in the ninth inning, bringing the tying run to the plate and scoring a run on a bases loaded walk, but RHP Andres Santiago (0.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO) recorded the final out to pick up the save, his first since 2009. After back-to-back tough outings, the Smokies bullpen was spectacular on Sunday. The unit of Santiago, Perakslis, Michael Jensen (2.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO) and Hunter Cervenka (1.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO) combined to hold the Braves offense to just one run over the game's final 5.2 innings.
Six Tennessee Smokies batters recorded a multi-hit effort as the club clubbed a season-high 16 hits in the victory. Vogelbach (3-5, 1 R, 2 2B, 2 RBI) led the team with a three-hit game, while Soto (2-6, 1 R), Almora (2-5, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 BB), Villanueva (2-5, 1 R, 3 RBI), Contreras (2-5) and Giansanti (2-4, 1 RBI, 1 BB) all recorded two base knocks each. Castro (4-4, 1 BB) led both teams with a game-high four hits and reached base five times for the M-Braves, while Smith (2-4, 1 R, 1 RBI) also collected a multi-hit game.
Right-hander Frank Batista, who is Tennessee's all-time leader in saves, is projected to make his first start since 2010, as the Smokies go for the series victory tomorrow afternoon. The Braves are expected to counter with fellow right-hander Greg Ross. The Pilot Pre-Game Show will kick off tomorrow's broadcast at 11:45 a.m. ET on the TuneIn Radio app and SmokiesBaseball.com, leading up to a 12:00 p.m. ET first pitch at Trustmark Park.
The Smokies' first home game is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 15 against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Opening night will be the very next evening on Thursday, April 16, with first pitch scheduled for 7:05 p.m. at Smokies Stadium.
Single-game tickets, as well as multi-voucher and season ticket packages are still available, and can be purchased online at smokiesbaseball.com, or by calling the Smokies Ticket Office at 865-286-2300.
The Tennessee Smokies are the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Members of the ten-team Southern League, Smokies baseball has been entertaining families and fans of America's national pastime in the East Tennessee region for over 100 years. To learn more about the Tennessee Smokies, visit www.smokiesbaseball.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.