It was the fifth home run of the season for the 19-year-old Venezuelan shortstop, but his first walk-off home run through all his years of playing baseball. He was filled with emotion after his teammates dumped a cooler full of ice water over him as he reached home plate.
“It was a change-up and I saw the ball pretty big,” Diaz said through a translator. “I was waiting on that pitch. To give the team the opportunity to stay in contention for the playoffs, I’m excited that we won.”
It gave the Cardinals (33-27) a two-game lead over the Astros (31-29) in the race for the Appalachian League West Division wild-card playoff spot, and it came one night after the Cardinals had set a single-season attendance race.
Johnson City was in the position for the win thanks to the efforts of starting pitcher Zach Prendergrast, who struck out 12 batters over seven scoreless innings. Prendergrast, a 22-year-old who attended Seton Hall University, peppered the strike zone after working on a game plan with catcher Julio Rodriguez.
“We had a game plan and we stuck with it,” Prendergrast said. “We attacked the hitters with fastballs and kept them off-balance with the off-speed. I just tried to bare down, but be smart about it. Some guys, we would start with the off-speed and finish up with the fastball and others, it was vice versa. We just had to keep them off balance.”
Thanks to the fans
Thursday’s dramatic victory came one night after it was announced the Cardinals had set an attendance record for a second straight year. With Thursday’s crowd, the Cardinals have hosted over 54,000 fans, beating last year’s mark of 53,445 and easily surpassing the previous record of 48,038 fans who came out in 1994.
The pitching duel
The game was scoreless through the first 6 1/2 innings. While Prendergrast was working the strike zone for the Cardinals, Greeneville’s hurlers took an opposite approach, getting Johnson City’s batters to chase after pitches. Yohan Acosta threw three innings of no-hit baseball before Francisco Villegas gave up just two hits over the next three innings.
Finally on the board
Stanley Espinal, nicknamed “Home Run Stanley,” put Johnson City on the scoreboard with a RBI triple to score Diaz. With a chance to do more damage, Carlos Rodriguez struck out on the next at-bat, leaving Espinal stranded at third base.
Greeneville took advantage of a Johnson City error to score in the top of the eighth. After a dropped fly ball, Juan Pineda singled on a line drive to left field to drive in the tying run. The Astros scored again in the top of the ninth as Pineda led Greeneville, going 3-for-4. Roman Garcia was 2-for-4, while Oscar Campos had the go-ahead RBI in the ninth.
Fabian Blanco (1-2) picked up the win for Johnson City after giving up three hits and two runs over the final two innings.
The teams wrap up their three-game series tonight. Game time is 7.