Four home runs early and three strikeouts late powered the Johnson City Cardinals past Princeton in an Appalachian League matchup of division leaders Friday night at Cardinal Park.
Gary Apelian’s two-run home run capped a three-run first inning for the Cardinals (18-6) and started a nine-batter, four-home run stretch that helped Johnson City build a 6-3 lead through three innings, and it held on for a 7-6 victory.
Roberto De La Cruz led off the second with a long home run, Matt Williams led off the third with a home run and Anthony Garcia added a solo home run one batter after Williams’ blast.
Leadoff batter Steven Ramos stretched the lead to 7-3 with a two-out line-drive single to center field in the fourth. It scored Tyler Rahmatulla who’d began the rally with a one-out line-drive single.
Princeton scored a run in the fifth, eighth and ninth to get within a run, and had the tying run at second after Felix Gonzalez’s two-out RBI. Right-handed sidearmer Heath Wyatt then walked Junior Rodriguez, but beared down and struck out Justin O’Connor with a 1-2 slider to end it.
It was the third strikeout of the inning for Wyatt, whose run allowed was unearned. After Wyatt struck out the first two batters of the inning, second baseman Tyler Rahmatulla couldn’t handle an odd hop after going to his left for Drew Vettleson’s grounder.
“I thought Heath was outstanding,” Johnson City manager Mike Shildt said. “He comes in and gets two quick outs ... and gets ahead of the next guy after (the error). But to Gonzalez’s credit, he put a good swing on a two-strike pitch and hit the ball down the line.
“Heath made some quality pitches after that, and he really just competed well. He was ahead in the count and around the zone. He had a lot of positive body language and confidence.”
It was the second save for Wyatt, who more or less expected to be a specialist against right-handers when the season began.
“I get here and don’t really know my role — expect to be kind of a one-hitter guy, you know,” Wyatt said. “And to come out and do well ... it was a total shock that I was put into different roles to where I could be a late guy. I just didn’t expect it.”
Right-handed batters don’t pick the ball up quickly out of Wyatt’s hand.
“That sinker-ball sidearmer — it’s just a tough angle,” Princeton manager Michael Johns said. “And these young guys haven’t seen a lot of them. It’s hard to adjust your eyesight for one, and then the other tough part is trying to lay off the slider, because usually it’s going to be a ball.”
It didn’t appear the Cardinals would need a save early. Along with the four home runs, the Cardinals had four line-drive singles and four line-outs that were hit just as hard.
Williams lined out twice, and De La Cruz and Ramos each lined out.
“We’re swinging the bats well,” Shildt said. “Guys had a good approach again, and got some balls they could handle and put good swings on them.”
Garcia, De La Cruz and Ramos each went 2-for-4.
Left-hander Brandon Henderson allowed seven runs in five innings for Princeton, and half of his eight hits allowed were home runs.
Left-hander Ben Freeman (2-1) allowed four runs and six hits while walking two in five innings for the victory. Roberto Canache pitched two shutout innings of relief.
Rodriguez led off the second inning with a home run for Princeton. Joel Caminero was 3-for-4. Tyler Motter and Vettleson each had two hits.
Johnson City right-hander Tyrell Jenkins (1-0) is scheduled to start game two of the series today at 6 p.m.