Before the inaugural Patriot Series began, Knoxville Smokies manager Snuff Wallace predicted that his team would win in a sweep. It was a typical bit of braggadocio from a showman, and few took his prediction seriously. But after the Milwaukee Bear Claws pulled out a 1-0 victory in today’s Game 4, the Smokies find themselves on the brink of elimination in five games, a possibility that almost no one had considered going in.
“Hey, anybody ask ol’ Snuff how his sweep is holding up?” quipped Bear Claws manager Poss Horton. “There’s a reason why you’re supposed to say it’s going to be a hard-fought series, even if you don’t really believe it. Because if you predict an easy win and the other team whips you, you look like an idiot.”
Today’s game was an unexpected pitcher’s duel, as neither starter seemed a likely bet to dominate. Bear Claws lefty Zack Perriman never quite got back on track after a midseason injury, and struggled with consistency and control down the stretch. His opponent, southpaw Rick Tomblin, spent most of the season buried in the minors for the last-place Orlando Calrissians, before the Smokies liberated him in a deadline deal.
But in spite of both hurlers’ shaky reputations, they combined to put up string of zeroes on the scoreboard. Neither one overpowered the opposing hitters; rather, they mixed up their pitches and induced weak contact again and again.
“That’s the key to my game,” said Perriman. “I’m not really capable of blowing it by guys, but if I can fool them and get them to get themselves out, I win.”
Knoxville’s first serious threat came in the 3rd inning, when CF Joe Blair and 2B Jeremiah Campo hit back-to-back singles to put runners on the corners with one out. But Perriman got DH Malcolm Bryant to swing at a diving slider and hit a double-play ball to short to end the inning.
“What I love about Zack is that he makes the hitters look silly,” said Horton. “When he’s on, they all go back to the dugout shaking their heads and saying, ‘I can’t believe I swung at that.’ And I just laugh to myself.”
Tomblin, meanwhile, allowed more hits but managed to keep the Bear Claws off the scoreboard. Milwaukee only went down in order once against Tomblin.
“I could tell they thought they were about to figure me out,” said Tomblin. “But all they were hitting was singles, and as long as that was true, I knew I’d be able to hold them off.”
In the 6th, though, Tomblin’s velocity began to drop alarmingly. After he allowed a one-out single to Milwaukee 3B Ikaru Suzuki, Wallace and trainer Bubba James came out to check on him. After a brief conversation, they took Tomblin out of the game.
Post-game examination revealed that Tomblin was suffering from shoulder inflammation, and he is expected to be out for the remainder of the series.
“It’s a damn shame for my season to end like this,” said Tomblin. “But I’m glad I had the chance to showcase my talent for a winning team down the stretch, and I’ll be ready to come back and kick [expletive] next year.”
With Knoxville’s usual long reliever, Jerry Tile, unavailable for today’s game, Wallace called on his other rubber-armed reliever, Rick Wilkins. The veteran righty stumbled in a brief appearance in Game 1, but he has gotten the Smokies out of numerous tight spots this season, and Wallace felt comfortable putting the ball in his hand.
“Rick’s a hard-nosed guy,” said Wallace. “He doesn’t get scared when the bright lights come on or things get tough.”
Wilkins didn’t have his A game today, but he demonstrated his ability to power through adversity. In the 7th, he allowed back-to-back singles to the bottom of the Milwaukee order leading off the inning. He worked out of that jam, however. He blew a couple fastballs past SS Red Petitt for a strikeout and got 2B Tony Anthony to line into an inning-ending double play, with Campo spearing the chest-high liner and stepping on second, with the crowd at Rocky Top Park roaring its approval.
“We could feel the momentum turn,” said Smokies LF Track Johnson. “We shut them down in the top of the inning, and we were ready to come out and grab the game by the throat.”
The Smokies certainly took a shot at it, mounting their first rally since the 3rd. SS Armand Moriarty got the party started with a one-out walk. 1B Eddie Battin launched a towering fly ball to right that brought the crowd to its feet, but it died at the warning track for the second out. 3B Ronnie Aceuedo dropped a long single down the left-field line, as Moriarty raced over to third. As the crowd stomped, clapped, and hooted, Bear Claws pitching coach Zane Stafford ambled out to the mound to check on Perriman.
“I was just taking his temperature,” Stafford said afterward. “He seemed pretty cool. I asked him, ‘You need a shot of courage? I got my flask in my pocket here.’ He laughed and said, ‘No, I got this.’ I knew he was gonna be fine. So I told him, ‘There’s a pretty redhead in a Bear Claws jersey over by our dugout. Get this guy, then go over and get her number.’ I wanted him focused on the task at hand.”
Perriman’s challenge was to retire C Prince Carlo. He fell behind the Knoxville catcher 3-1, as the noise in the park reached deafening levels. Carlo fouled off several tough pitches, but wound up grounded out to second to end the inning.
Immediately following the Smokies’ snuffed-out rally, Bear Claws 1B Felipe Mateo sucked the remaining energy out of the stadium by driving a 1-1 fastball from Wilkins (0-1) out to right to give Milwaukee the lead.
“We were so close, but that sequence just broke our backs,” said Johnson. “One minute, we were on the brink of breaking it open. The next, they’ve got the lead.”
Perriman (1-0) retired the Smokies in order in the final two innings to secure the win.
Despite trailing 3-1 in the series, Wallace remains confident in his team. “Sometimes, it takes having your backs against the wall to bring out your best,” the Knoxville skipper said. “I know I’ve got a champion squad over here, and I’m expecting them to respond like champs.”
Game 5 takes place at Rocky Top Park tomorrow, with Knoxville sending their ace Elicio Santana to the hill to oppose Milwaukee’s “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman.
9/26/2015, MIL15-KNX15, Rocky Top Park 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E LOB DP 2015 Bear Claws 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 12 1 10 3 2015 Smokies 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 0 5 2 Bear Claws AB R H BI AVG Smokies AB R H BI AVG Petitt ss 5 0 1 0 .235 Blair cf 4 0 2 0 .438 Iddings 2b 3 0 0 0 .067 Campo 2b 4 0 1 0 .133 Anthony 2b 2 0 0 0 .000 Bryant dh 4 0 1 0 .125 Mateo 1b 3 1 2 1 .533 Campo rf 4 0 0 0 .429 Suzuki 3b 4 0 2 0 .412 Moriarty ss 3 0 0 0 .000 Mealey lf 4 0 0 0 .375 Battin 1b 3 0 0 0 .133 Raine dh 4 0 2 0 .571 Aceuedo 3b 3 0 1 0 .182 Trumbauer rf 3 0 1 0 .143 Carlo c 3 0 0 0 .167 McGuigan c 4 0 1 0 .294 Johnson lf 3 0 1 0 .308 Maxwell cf 4 0 3 0 .375 31 0 6 0 36 1 12 1 Bear Claws INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA Perriman W 1-0 9.0 6 0 0 1 1 100 62 0.00 9.0 6 0 0 1 1 100 62 Smokies INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA Tomblin 5.1 6 0 0 1 4 77 44 0.00 Wilkins L 0-1 3.2 6 1 1 1 3 53 34 4.15 9.0 12 1 1 2 7 130 78 MIL: Anthony inserted at 2b in the 5th E-Petitt. HR-Mateo(3). RBI-Mateo(6). CS-Trumbauer. K-Petitt, Iddings, Mealey, Trumbauer, McGuigan 2, Anthony, Bryant. BB-Mateo, Trumbauer, Moriarty. GWRBI: Mateo Richard Iddings was injured for this game only Rick Tomblin was injured for this game and 5 more days Temperature: 66, Sky: clear, Wind: right to left at 13 MPH.