The Knoxville Smokies found themselves in a rare must-win situation today. Trailing 3-1 in the Patriot Series to the Milwaukee Bear Claws, the Smokies needed a victory in Game 5 to stay alive. Fortunately for the fans at Rocky Top Park, the Smokies were up to the task. Ace lefty Elicio Santana came through with a brilliant performance, and a late homer from an unlikely source propelled Knoxville to a 3-1 win.
“A champion does his best fighting after you box him into a corner,” said Smokies manager Snuff Wallace. “Our boys were up against the ropes, and they battled themselves back to the center of the ring. Now we’ve got two more games to land the knockout blow.”
The unexpected hero of this game was Smokies 3B Ronnie Aceuedo. Acquired during spring training in a minor deal, Aceuedo surprised most observers with a stronger-than-expected season. But he had made little impact in the championship until he stepped up in the 7th to face Bear Claws starter “Stormin’” Patrick McNorman in a 1-1 tie game.
McNorman (0-1) had been cruising through the Knoxville lineup to that point in Game 5. After a slightly bumpy 1st inning in which he allowed a couple of walks and an unearned run, the big Milwaukee righty had held the Smokies to three hits through the first 6 innings.
He’d opened the 7th by walking 1B Eddie Battin after a protracted struggle, but he felt confident as he faced the bottom of the Knoxville order beginning with Aceuedo, whom he’d already retired twice to that point.
After starting Aceuedo with a slider that missed the outside corner for a ball, McNorman decided to back him off with an inside fastball. “[Aceuedo] was practically standing on the plate,” said McNorman. “I wanted to get him to step back, then I’d come back with that outside slider and try to get him to roll into a double play.
McNorman’s pitch was where he wanted it, but rather than bail out, Aceuedo swung at it. Aceuedo’s teammates have marveled at his bad-ball hitting all season. “I think if you threw Ronnie a fastball at his head or bounced it in the other batter’s box, he could still get a bat on it,” said Smokies CF Joe Blair.
Somehow, Aceuedo managed to clear his wrists and meet McNorman’s fastball squarely. At first, it looked like a high but harmless fly ball. But with the wind blowing out to left, the ball was urged along by the stiff mountain breeze.
Bear Claws LF Arthur Mealey drifted back and back, trying to get a bead on the ball. But he finally ran of room, dropping his head as Aceuedo’s blast came to rest in the third row.
“At first, I thought I didn’t have it,” said Aceuedo. “Then I saw [Mealey] with his head down and the crowd yelling, and I knew I had it.”
As Aceuedo circled the bases, McNorman nodded to him in admiration. “Sometimes all you can do is tip your hat,” said the righty. “If I’d missed my location or gotten a bad call, that would be one thing. But I put it right where I wanted it, and he still managed to muscle it out. It was an impressive job by him. Yeah, you never want it to happen to you, but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due.”
Aceuedo’s blast came one inning after Santana and the Smokies managed to keep Milwaukee from taking the lead. The Knoxville ace opened the 6th by walking Mealey and then allowing a double to DH Rodolfo Raine, giving the Bear Claws a pair of runners in scoring position with nobody out.
Facing a dangerous hitter in RF Wally Trumbauer, Santana began nibbling and fell behind 2-0. He came back with a fastball down the middle, and Trumbauer socked it to center. Fortunately for the Smokies, the wind that would later aid Aceuedo’s blast now knocked down Trumbauer’s ball, and Blair chased it down shy of the track. Mealey then broke for him, but Blair fired a perfect peg to the plate and C Prince Carlo tagged Mealey on the thigh, completing a huge double play.
“How about Joe Blair, boys!” crowed Wallace. “I’ve been telling everybody all year he’s the best center fielder in the league and no one buys it. But he’s the total package: he can hit, run, field, throw. You find me a guy who’s better than that, and I’ll eat my hat.”
Wallace yanked Santana after that inning, turning the ball over to right-hander Sylvester Lighty and lefty Tobias Dennis (1-0) for the 7th and 8th. The two kept Milwaukee off the board in those frames before yielding to closer Charlie Pasternak, who worked a 1-2-3 9th for his second save of the series.
The win kept Knoxville’s hopes alive, but the Smokies still have a tough road ahead. The series shifts back to High Life Field in Milwaukee for the final two games, and Knoxville has to win them both in order to capture the Patriot League’s first championship. But as usual, Wallace remains highly confident in his team.
“The pressure’s on Milwaukee, if you ask me,” said the Smokies skipper. “They had a chance to close us out here, and they couldn’t put it away. Now we’re going back to their place, but think about it. They lose the next one, and suddenly it’s a tie series and the momentum’s all with us. They might talk a good game, but I bet they’re shaking in their booties over there.”
In the visitor’s clubhouse, Bear Claws manager Poss Horton projected a relaxed confidence. “I like it better this way, to tell you the truth,” said Horton. “After everything our fans have done for us all year, it wouldn’t be right to clinch it on the road. We’re right where we want to be. We’ve got two more shots at home if we need them, we’ve got our ace going tomorrow, and [the Smokies] still aren’t hitting. It’s definitely not over yet, but we’re in a very good position.”
After tomorrow’s travel day, Game 6 will match up Bear Claws right-hander Lou Mallory, who had a rough outing and took the loss in Game 1, against Smokies righty Jack Jacques, who surrendered 14 hits in a losing effort in Game 2.
9/27/2015, MIL15-KNX15, Rocky Top Park 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E LOB DP 2015 Bear Claws 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 8 1 9 0 2015 Smokies 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 x 3 5 0 5 2 Bear Claws AB R H BI AVG Smokies AB R H BI AVG Petitt ss 5 0 1 0 .227 Blair cf 2 1 0 0 .389 Iddings 2b 3 0 2 0 .167 Campo 2b 4 0 1 0 .158 Mateo 1b 2 0 1 1 .529 Bryant dh 3 0 1 0 .158 Suzuki 3b 4 0 0 0 .333 Campo rf 4 0 0 0 .333 Mealey lf 3 0 0 0 .316 Moriarty ss 3 0 0 1 .000 Raine dh 4 0 3 0 .611 Battin 1b 2 1 0 0 .118 Fleitas pr 0 0 0 0 .000 Aceuedo 3b 3 1 1 2 .214 Trumbauer rf 4 0 0 0 .111 Carlo c 3 0 1 0 .200 Maxwell cf 3 0 0 0 .316 Johnson lf 3 0 1 0 .313 Champney c 4 1 1 0 .250 27 3 5 3 32 1 8 1 Bear Claws INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA McNorman L 0-1 8.0 5 3 2 4 5 117 67 2.25 8.0 5 3 2 4 5 117 67 Smokies INN H R ER BB K PCH STR ERA Santana 6.0 6 1 1 4 2 99 57 2.08 Lighty 0.1 1 0 0 0 0 8 6 0.00 Dennis W 1-0 1.2 1 0 0 0 0 14 9 0.00 Pasternak S 2 1.0 0 0 0 0 1 9 7 0.00 9.0 8 1 1 4 3 130 79 MIL: Fleitas ran for Raine in the 8th E-Petitt. 2B-Petitt(1), Raine(3). 3B-Johnson(1). HR-Aceuedo(1). RBI-Mateo(7), Moriarty(2), Aceuedo 2(3). SB-Iddings(1), Bryant(1). K-Mealey, Champney 2, Blair, Campo, Moriarty 2, Battin. BB-Mateo 2, Mealey, Maxwell, Blair 2, Bryant, Battin. SF-Moriarty. HBP-Iddings. HB-Santana. GWRBI: Aceuedo Rodolfo Raine was injured for this game only Temperature: 77, Sky: partly cloudy, Wind: right to left at 16 MPH.