Johnson City has become Joey Donofrio’s home away from home, and Monday night, so was Cardinal Park.
Donofrio worked three innings of shutout relief for the win in Johnson City’s 6-3 defeat of Bristol.
The Cardinals won the nightcap 3-1 to extend their lead to a full game over Greeneville for the Appalachian League West Division’s second playoff berth despite Greeneville’s 6-5 win at Elizabethton on Monday.
The victory in the opener was technically a road win for the Cardinals. The game was suspended in Bristol on July 13 with the score tied at 3 through 5½ innings.
Johnson City scored three in the top of the ninth for the victory. Leandro Mateo walked to lead off the ninth and scored what proved to be the winning run on a wild pitch. Jeremy Schaffer added two insurance runs with a two-out, two-run double.
“We’ve been doing well in the last inning lately,” said Donofrio, a 23-year-old right-hander. “Against Princeton, we scored four in the bottom of the ninth one game and then six in the bottom of the seventh in a seven-inning game. So we’ve had some exciting games lately.”
Donofrio improved to 3-2 while lowering his ERA to 1.46.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good about how I’ve been throwing it,” Donofrio said. “I feel like my slider’s been my go-to pitch. And the fastball’s gotten a lot more ground balls than I’m used to.”
Ground balls are gold for pitchers with second baseman Ildemaro Vargas and shortstop Cesar Valera on duty. Vargas started a 4-6-3 double play for the first two outs after a leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth. Valera rolled it acrobatically with a leaping throw, and first baseman Michael Knox made a difficult back-handed dig look easy.
“That was huge for them to turn that for me,” Donofrio said. “Valera and Vargas up the middle have been huge. They’re one of the best double play-turning combos in the league.”
The Cardinals apparently also have one of the best coaching staffs in the league. Hitting coach Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz and pitching coach Doug White have helped the Cardinals become the two-time defending league champions, and first-year manager Oliver Marmol has fit in almost seamlessly.
“They relate well to all the guys,” Donofrio said. “They’re very informative, you know, imparting their knowledge on us. So it’s really good to be able to have that sort of open communication with your coaches, where you don’t feel intimidated by talking to them. … Every coach gets upset sometimes, but they’re very good about relaying why they’re upset – explaining it to you and helping you get better, as opposed to, you know, just yelling at you.”
A Los Gatos, Calif., native, Donofrio played in college at California. He grew up 10 minutes from San Jose and 30 minutes from the beach, but East Tennessee has grown on him.
He’s warmed up to Main Street Pizza and McAlister’s Deli, and his host family, Susan and Don Hembre, has strongly suggested Greg’s Pizza.
“I’ve absolutely loved it here,” Donofrio said. “My host family’s been fantastic. They’ve made it home for me and I really enjoy the small-town feel. I’ve had a good time here. I played a couple of summers in Bend, Ore., and it had sort of the same small-town feel.”
The Cardinals are on pace, albeit narrowly, to extend their stay in Johnson City.
“We’re in the playoff hunt and all of these games are important,” Donofrio said. “We’re playing well, Greeneville’s playing well. So it’s gonna be interesting coming down the next week or so. Hopefully, we’ll get in playoffs and give ourselves a chance to repeat in the Appy League.”
Right-handed starter Thomas Lee (3-4) struck out 10 and walked one while allowing five hits and one run in seven innings for the victory in game two.
“He’s been unbelievable for us lately,” Johnson City manager Oliver Marmol said. “He’s done a very nice job of locating his fastball in and out, and that slider, he can throw it whenever he wants for strikes.”
Johnson City tied the score at 1 in the second. Gerwuins Velazco led off with a single and scored on Ronald Castillo’s two-out, bad-hop single.
The Cardinals scored twice in the third. Dutch Deol led off with a double. Vargas’ single scored Deol. C.J. McElroy scored on a double play in the inning after singling, stealing second and advancing to third on Vargas’ hit.
Right-hander Ronald Shaban struck out one during a scoreless ninth for his league-best 15th save.
Triple-A pitcher Simon Castro, a 24-year-old right-hander, made a rehab start in the nightcap. He allowed three hits and one earned run in two innings.
Johnson City hosts Bristol for a 6 p.m. doubleheader today.