The Hickory Crawdads got the setup they wanted to claim Game 1 of the South Atlantic League Championship Series Monday night at L.P. Frans Stadium. However, the Lexington (Kentucky) Legends didn’t play along.
The Legends rallied for four runs over the final two innings and took a 6-4 win in the first game of the best-of-five series. The defending SAL champions won their third in a row after sweeping Augusta (Georgia) in the Southern Division series last week and their fourth in a row over the past two championship series.
The Crawdads, who are trying to win their second championship in five seasons, lost their first playoff game at home since 2011 and the first in a SAL championship series since 2002.
Game 2 is scheduled for tonight at Frans at 7 p.m. After an off day for travel, the teams will pick up the series Thursday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.
With a strong start from Ronny Henriquez and a three-run fifth, the Crawdads turned over a 3-2 lead to two of their most effective relievers this season for the final three innings.
Nick Snyder, who had a 1.29 ERA in the second half, retired the first five he faced until Rubendy Jaquez doubled to right with two outs in the eighth. Jeison Guzman then rolled a grounder to the first-base side of second. Jax Biggers ranged far to his right and made a diving attempt to keep the ball on the infield. However, the ball deflected off the tip of his glove and strayed far enough into center to allow Jaquez to score the tying run.
In the ninth, the Legends had to face Kelvin Gonzalez, who had not allowed an earned run over his last 13 outings dating back to July 20, including two games during the Northern Division series. With one out, Nathan Eaton got aboard on a bunt single, then moved to second on Reed Rohlman’s single. Nick Hutchins sliced a Gonzalez fastball down the line in left for an RBI double that scored Eaton. With the infield brought in an attempt to limit the damage, the strategy backfired when John Rave found a hole up the middle for a two-run single to make it 6-3.
“Before the game, if you'd say they give us the lead with two of our best guys coming out of the bullpen, we’ll take it every time,” said Crawdads manager Matt Hagen. “It didn’t work out, but we’ll take that situation again.”
Facing closer Brandon Marklund, the Crawdads got help from the Legends to stay in the game. Marklund walked Miguel Aparicio to start the inning and he advanced to third with two outs. Biggers reached when Jaquez mishandled a bouncer, which also allowed Aparicio to score the unearned run. At the plate as the tying run, Ryan Anderson gave the 1,599 in attendance a momentary thrill with a fly to deep right. But the ball died at the wall and into the glove of Eric Cole to end the game.
“They’re a good team,” said Lexington manager Brooks Conrad. “They’ve had an outstanding season. All we ask is for our guys to play hard until the last out is made. That’s what they did again tonight. They showed great resilience coming back after we got down there.”
Henriquez was sharp in his start for Hickory. The 19-year-old right hander allowed two runs on three hits and struck out seven over his six innings of work. The two runs against him came in the third when Jaquez singled with two outs before Guzman showed surprising power with a two-run shot to right. The Legends shortstop entered the game with only 12 homers over his four seasons as a pro.
“(Henriquez) was good,” Hagen said. “He competed. Pitched six innings and gave up two runs. We’ll take that every single time.”
The Crawdads were silenced for the first four innings before getting to starter Jon Heasley for all three runs. Hickory’s rally came as it jumped on fastballs early in the count. Frainyer Chavez hit the first pitch of the inning for a single. Two pitches later, Miguel Aparicio doubled Chavez to third from where he scored on Matt Whatley’s sacrifice fly. After laying off a slider, Kole Enright lined a fastball to the wall in right for a run-scoring double. With two outs, Enright scored when Eaton bobbled Anderson’s grounder to third.
Hickory had just five hits but received three walks and put four others on due to Lexington errors. However, the Crawdads stranded seven and had two runners thrown out on the bases. The Legends were also the recipients of four shutout innings from the bullpen.
“They were outstanding again,” said Conrad. “They did a great job. Offensively, down the stretch, we got some guys to come up with some big hits. That’s a good combination.”