By Steve Kolbe
After a 30 minute rain delay, the Jacksonville Suns fell behind early on Saturday night, and a ninth inning comeback fell just short in a 7-6 loss to the Tennessee Smokies at the Baseball Grounds.
The Suns took the lead in the second inning when Kyle Skipworth and Curt Smith each hit solo home runs to give Jacksonville a 2-0 advantage. The Suns have started the scoring in all three games of the series against the Smokies, but have lost two of three contests.
Tennessee put together a big inning in the top of third, sending nine men to the plate against Suns starter Bryan Evans. Pitcher Jeff Antigua led off the inning with a walk, and Logan Watkins doubled behind him to put runners on second and third. Jae-Hoon Ha then singled to left field, driving in Antigua to trim the Suns lead to 2-1. With one out, Justin Bour increased his league-leading RBI total to 54, when he hit a sacrifice fly to center with Watkins hustling home from third to tie the game 2-2.
With one on and two outs, Nelsen Perez hit a two-run home run into the right field stands to put the Smokies on top 4-2. It was his first home run with Tennessee after being promoted from High-A Daytona three days earlier, where he ranked third in the Florida State League in round trippers. The inning continued when Matt Cerda singled with two outs, and that brought Mike Burgess to the plate. Burgess then belted a two-run home run to center field to increase the lead to 6-2. The home run by Burgess is the longest hit at the Baseball Grounds this season. In the inning, the Smokies scored six runs on five hits. It’s the seventh time this season that the Suns have allowed five or more runs in an inning.
The Smokies added a run in the seventh on a RBI single by Jae-Hoon Ha to make the score 7-2. The Suns began their comeback attempt in the bottom half of the seventh, when pinch hitter Paul Gran singled and scored on Donnie Webb’s sixth triple of the season to make the score 7-3.
In the home half of the ninth, reliever Kevin Rhoderick struck out Jeff Dominguez for the first out. After Paul Gran was hit by a pitch for the 12th time this season, Donnie Webb blasted a two-run home run into the right field seats to cut the lead to 7-5. Webb has hit a home run in two straight games, both to right field.
Rhoderick struck out Chris Gutierrez for the second out of the inning, but Jake Smolinski scratched out an infield single, and stole second base. Shawn Bowman then drove in Smolinski with a single to left, and the Suns were down 7-6. With a runner on first, two outs, and the Suns down by just a run, the stage was set for high drama. The Smokies made the call to the bullpen and summoned their closer Frank Batista. In a showdown between two Southern League All-Stars, catcher Kyle Skipworth jumped on the first pitch that he saw from Batista, and nearly gave the Suns a walk-off win by sending a fly ball deep to left field. With the crowd and the Suns dugout on their feet, left fielder Nelson Perez raced back and made the catch on the warning track, and the Suns comeback fell just a few feet short. The Suns have scored three runs in the ninth inning four times this season, but Saturday’s loss is the first time that they have come up short of a win.
Five of the 18 combined hits in the game were home runs. Jacksonville belted three homers in a game for the first time this season, and have hit five home runs in the series. For the Suns, Donnie Webb paced the offense going 2-for-5 with a home run, triple, and three RBI. Webb is tied for third in the Southern League with six triples. Logan Watkins, Justin Bour, and Jae-Hoon Ha each collected two hits for the Smokies. Watkins tripled on the first pitch of the game from Bryan Evans.
Suns starter Bryan Evans (2-5) entered the game with a 2.90 ERA, third lowest in the league. He pitched four innings, allowing six runs on seven hits. Evans had allowed only 12 runs in his first eight games at the Baseball Grounds. Casey Weathers (3-1) picked up the win by allowing one hit over two innings of work for the Smokies. Frank Batista, who finished second in the Florida State League with 26 saves last season with Daytona, recorded the final out to earn his 11th save of the season.