CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Kernels will need to win twice in Peoria to keep their season alive.
A superb start by Cedar Rapids starting pitcher Bryan Sammons helped stake the Kernels to a 2-0 lead through seven innings, but Peoria tagged the Cedar Rapids bullpen for three runs in the eighth and two in the ninth for a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-3 Midwest League Western Division championship series before 503 fans Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“It was tough,” Cedar Rapids Manager Toby Gardenhire said. “We had a lot of chances to score early and we didn’t come through on a lot of different situations. If that happens, when teams hang around like that for a long time, things like this happen.”
Game 2 is Sunday at 4 in Peoria, Ill. Blayne Enlow (3-5, 3.26 ERA) will pitch for Cedar Rapids against Peoria lefty Jake Dahlberg (4-3, 2.87). The Kernels will need to win Sunday and again on Monday in order to avoid elimination and reach the Midwest League championship series for the first time since losing to West Michigan in five games in 2015. Cedar Rapids last won a Midwest League title in 1994 as an affiliate of the then-named California Angels.
“We’ve got to go out and play,” Gardenhire said. “I think we’ve got a really good team. We’ve just got to go out there and keep playing. We could have won that game tonight, it just didn’t bounce our way. Tomorrow we’ll just go out there and play hard and see what happens.”
Sammons, 23, had not pitched for Cedar Rapids since July 15. The 6-foot-4 left-hander spent most of the last two months at High-A Fort Myers (Fla.), but his most recent start came Sept. 1 with Double-A Chattanooga (Tenn.). Four days later, he was back in Cedar Rapids, where the Kernels were preparing for the start of the Midwest League playoffs. He pitched six scoreless innings and allowed two hits without walking a batter. Of his 86 pitches, 60 were strikes.
“Sammons was great,” Gardenhire said. “He was pounding the (strike) zone just like what we saw from him before early in the season. He pounded the zone all night. He had his good fastball going. He was mixing in a breaking ball. He was pitching in and out. He was just doing a really good job.”
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Cedar Rapids jumped on Peoria starter Angel Rondon for a run in the bottom half of the first inning. Akil Baddoo led off the frame with a walk, Michael Helman singled and Trevor Larnach reached base when Baddoo was forced out at third. A one-out single by Ryan Jeffers — a second-round pick in June’s Major League Baseball amateur draft — scored Helman from second base. With the bases loaded and one out, Trey Cabbage grounded into a double play.
Cabbage got the bottom of the fourth inning started with a one-out, bases-empty bunt single along the third-base line. After a two-out single by Victor Tademo advanced Cabbage to second base, David Banuelos doubled into the left-field corner and scored Cabbage for a 2-0 Cedar Rapids lead.
Cedar Rapids left-handed reliever Zach Neff pitched a relatively quiet seventh inning, but the eighth was a different tale. A high infield pop fly dropped between three Kernels, the first of four soft base hits through the first five batters of the frame that cut the Kernels’ lead to 2-1. A two-out, two-run single by Luken Baker gave the Chiefs a 3-2 lead.
“Neff’s been great,” Gardenhire said. “That’s the thing. He’s been throwing the ball really good. You know he’s going to throw strikes. He’s crafty. He’s got a good curveball, He’s got a good slider. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s a good pitcher. They did a good job of putting the ball in play and they made things happen that inning. Sometimes that’s baseball.”
Cedar Rapids tied the game at 3-3 in the bottom half of the eighth inning when pinch-hitter Jacob Pearson hit a one-out bloop single over the drawn-in infield that scored Michael Davis from third base. With one out and the bases loaded, Michael Helman grounded into a double play that sent the game to the ninth inning tied at 3-3.
Peoria started the ninth with back-to-back singles by Julio Rodriguez and Zach Kirtley. With one out, Nick Dunn ripped a single into right field off Cedar Rapids reliever Jose Martinez that scored two runs and gave the Chiefs a 5-3 lead.
The Kernels were retired in order in the bottom of the ninth.
MIDWEST LEAGUE WESTERN DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
At Veterans Memorial Stadium
Peoria Chiefs 5, Cedar Rapids Kernels 3
(Peoria leads series, 1-0)
Peoria 000 000 032—5
Cedar Rapids 100 100 010—3
WP — Kodi Whitley (1-0); LP — Jose Martinez (0-1).
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