Nelson Maldonado – Pic by Micah Manuel/Tennessee Smokies

Heading into the first game of the Southern League Championship Series, I really liked the Smokies’ chances with their potent offense. Rocket City was far and above the class of this league and the Smokies disposed of them in three games. As a result, the Smokies offense gave them a good shot at winning a Southern League title!

And based on the first inning tonight, the Smokies stood a pretty good chance in game one.

The game began in Pensacola with back-to-back singles by Yonathan Perlaza and Jake Slaughter. After Bryce Ball struck out and Nelson Maldonado flew out, Cole Roederer and Chase Strumpf got back-to-back walks to give Tennessee a 1-0 lead. Pensacola threw down to third base to try and snag Jake Slaughter creeping too far down the third base line and the ball went into the left field corner scoring Slaughter and Roederer to make it 3 to 0. The Smokies added another run in the fourth on a Nelson Maldonado solo shot to take a 4-0 lead. 

For starting pitcher DJ Herz, this was an important start. He faced most of these guys last year when they were with the Beloit Snappers in high class A. That familiarity worked well for Herz as he got through the first three innings without surrendering a run, but it took 59 pitches to do so.

After getting a strikeout to lead off the fourth, DJ walked two batters and it looked like he was just about to get a second out on a slow roller to Chase Strumpf when he pulled up his glove and the ball went underneath it and into the outfield for the first run for the Blue Wahoos. At that point, Manager Michael Ryan went to the bullpen and brought in fellow lefty Riley Martin.

Martin just came up from South Bend where he’d been outstanding in the second half of the year after starting to throw a slider while on the development list. He walked the first guy that he faced to load the bases. Thankfully, Martin got out of the inning to keep the lead at three runs.

In the fifth, neither side scored and Pensacola was sent down 1– 2–3 by Martin. 

Blake Whitney came on in the bottom of the sixth and sat down the side in order again and that included two strikeouts. Whitney shut them down in the seventh again and gave way to Bailey Horn who went 1-2-3 again in the eighth. I am sensing a theme here.

In the ninth, it got a little hairy when Pensacola put two men on with one out. Horn then got Nasim Nunez to pop up for the second out. Then Horn buckled down and struck out Will Banfield to the end the game.

It’s really cool to see Tennessee get a win and do it on a day where the bullpen had to throw 5 and 2/3 scoreless innings to get it done. I said that the key to this series was the bullpen and that’s holding to be true. Now that they are going home, the Smokies have two chances to get it done!

The Smokies next play Tuesday and the starting pitchers have not been announced. It’s more than likely that Riley Thompson will be going in game two and, if needed, Ben Brown will go in game three. My only concern is if Pensacola goes with Eury Perez, the number nine prospect in all of baseball. He’s a 6’8” righty who I saw it last year in Beloit and he’s just vicious. If he doesn’t pitch, odds are it will be Dax Fulton who I saw just two months ago in Beloit. He’s pretty good too, but he’s no Perez.