Jonathan Keener hasn’t gotten as many at-bats as most of his Johnson City teammates, but Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said he likes the way the catcher stays prepared.
That preparation paid dividends Saturday night as Keener’s three-run homer was the biggest blow in a 7-3 win over Bluefield in an Appalachian League game at Cardinal Park.
The Cardinals (30-15) have the league’s best record and won the battle of division leaders. They maintained their six-game lead over Elizabethton (24-21) in the West Division.
With his team trailing 2-1 in the fourth inning, Keener came to the plate with two runners on base. He connected on a 1-0 pitch and hit what looked like a warning-track fly to right — but the ball just kept going.
“I was looking for a fastball over the plate, and he happened to throw one,” said Keener. “I put a good swing on it. I saw the outfielder stop, and I didn’t think the ball was going that far. Then I thought it might hit the wall. I don’t know how it went out, but it did.”
The game-changing hit made it 4-2, and the Cardinals never looked back. Shildt said he appreciates Keener’s professional approach.
“I’ve got all the respect for the way he has handled this year,” said Shildt. “We’ve got three catchers, and I’ve tried to be as equitable as possible. He really works hard every day and prepares the right way. He has improved every facet of his game.”
For Keener, the biggest focus is what happens when he’s behind the plate.
“I just try to catch a good game and help the pitchers,” said Keener. “I try not to worry about hitting, but if it comes around that’s a good thing.”
Keener had a good evening handling the pitchers, receiving five innings from starter Ryan Sherriff (2-1) and four innings from Kyle Hald, who earned his first save of the season.
Shildt said the two-man mound effort was a perfect fit for this game.
“It was just what the doctor ordered,” said Shildt. “They were around the plate, kept the hitters off-balance and disrupted their timing. That’s what pitching is.”
Sherriff allowed seven hits with two runs, one walk and four strikeouts. Hald gave up two hits and a run with two walks and three strikeouts.
Gary Apelian had the only two-hit performance for the Cards at the plate.
Johnson City started with a bang, loading the bases with nobody out and a run already in on Tyler Rahmatulla’s RBI single. However, the Cards didn’t get any more runs.
Bluefield jumped ahead in the top of the fourth inning as Chris Hawkins and Aaron Munoz singled in runs.
After Keener’s bit hit, the Cardinals added to their lead in the seventh inning. Apelian had an RBI single, David Washington chipped in with an RBI groundout, and another run scored on an error.
Steven Ramos made two big defensive plays in center field, scored two runs, and ignited the seventh-inning flurry with a bunt single.
Bluefield got a run in the eighth inning on Melvin Garcia’s RBI single.
The teams will meet again tonight at 6 o’clock at Cardinal Park.