Late inning solo home runs from Brandon Thomas and Josh Silver inched the River City Rascals past the Normal CornBelters, 2-1, Friday night in the 2017 opener at CarShield Field.
Trailing 1-0 going into the bottom of the seventh, the Rascals had tallied just three total hits against Belters starter Julio Vivas and a pair of relievers on Brooks Carey’s pitching staff. However, after the stretch, the Rascals doubled their hit total and got their first run with one out in the seventh via a solo home run from newcomer Brandon Thomas.
Thomas played for the Gateway Grizzlies last year and produced multiple career highs, including in the home run category, where he pounded out eleven.
After a scoreless frame from Skylar Hunter in the top of the eighth, Josh Silver took the first pitch he saw in the home half against right-hander Christopher Long over the left field wall and gave the Rascals the chance to showcase their new closer for the 2017 campaign.
“Everybody was really locked in the whole game and after the home run we just really wanted to get the first victory under our belt and fortunately we made it happen,” Silver said.
Swagerty was the man to help make it happen in the top of the ninth as he came out of the bullpen for his first professional save opportunity. Looking to replace 2016 All-Star closer Zac Treece, Swagerty retired the first two hitters in four pitches via a groundout and a strikeout before working the count full on leadoff hitter Yeixon Ruiz. After Ruiz stayed alive for one more offering by tapping a pitch foul, Swagerty put him away with a strikeout and gave the Rascals their first opening night win since 2014.
On the mound for the Rascals was southpaw Hector Hernandez and he was dominant in his first professional start since July 7th, 2016, with the Kane County Cougars (Diamondbacks, single-A). Hernandez began the game shutting out the Belters through the first six frames and then had to work through a tough situation in the seventh before being replaced by Jason Zgardowski.
Justin Fletcher led off the inning with an infield single and then got to third on a throwing error. After a walk to Lepre, the Rascals made back-to-back to errors causing a run to score and then the bases became loaded with no outs. Hernandez struck out Ruiz for his seventh of the night and then eighth year manager Steve Brook called upon Zgardowski and he answered with back-to-back strikeouts to limit the damage to just one run.
“I think that Zgardowski was the highlight of our game tonight, At that point, the game could be over, just one more hit or a sacrifice fly gives them a two run lead and it’s very difficult to come back late,” Brook said. “Zar came in and shut the door with a couple good fastballs and sliders that resulted in strikeouts.”
In a no-decision, Hernandez’s final line was 6 ⅓ innings, one run on five hits, three walks and seven strikeouts. The Belter’s starter also took a no-decision tossing 5 ⅔ scoreless innings allowing just two hits, walked four and struck out three.
“Hector did exactly what we anticipated him to do, he threw all of his pitches for strikes and he competed, he is a competitor. You can sense that about him when he takes the mound and he has been that way his entire career,” Brook said. “Normal’s starter did a nice job too and he was throwing a slider that our guys struggled with. Later in the game though, Thomas took advantage of a hitter’s count and Silver a fastball to give us the lead.”
Besides Thomas’s and Silver’s home runs, Merjano had two hits including a triple and Braxton Martinez picked up his first hit of the season.
The series continues tomorrow at 6:35 p.m. with lefty Dan Ludwig on the mound at CarShield Field.