After surviving a wild four-team race to close out the regular season, the Cardinals got a day off on Thursday. Up next is a best-of-three semifinal series with the Bristol Pirates. The postseason begins Friday at 6:30 p.m. at DeVault Stadium in Bristol, Virginia.
Johnson City clinched the Appy League’s West Division championship on the final day of the regular season with a 9-7 victory over the Kingsport Mets. Those two teams were tied for first place entering the game, with Bristol and the Elizabethton Twins nipping at their heels a half game behind.
When the smoke cleared on the extraordinary night, Johnson City and Bristol were left standing.
“We have been telling these guys we’re going to battle and compete from Game 1 to Game 68 and these guys did it,” Johnson City manager Roberto Espinoza said. “That was the plan. Now they move on.”
The second and third games of the best-of-three series are set for TVA Credit Union Ballpark in Johnson City, where the Cardinals set their season attendance record for the fourth year in a row. Saturday’s game is set for 6:30 p.m. and Sunday’s game, if necessary, would start at 5 p.m.
Johnson City had 80,612 fans come through the gates despite losing two early home games because of wet field conditions. That’s an average of 2,519 per game.
The winner of the series takes on whichever team emerges from the East, where Pulaski and Burlington are battling, in the league championship series. The Pulaski Yankees have the best record in the league at 42-26. The Burlington Royals are 39-29.
The East winner will have the home field advantage in the finals.
Righty Jake Sommers will likely start for the Cardinals. The 10th-round pick out of Wisconsin-Milwaukee went 2-3 with a 4.18 ERA this season. He has allowed more than two runs in only one of his last four appearances.
Jose Maldonado (4-6, 4.34) will start for the Pirates. The righth-hander was the losing pitcher against the Cardinals in his last outing despite holding Johnson City to two runs in six innings.
Facing elimination on the final day of the regular season, the Cardinals flexed their muscle with three home runs. Diomedes Del Rio’s grand slam got things going and Victor Garcia and Chandler Redmond also went deep.
For Redmond, it was his 12th home run of the season. The former Big South Conference player of the year while playing at Gardner-Webb finished the regular season with a .286 average and 40 RBIs.
LOOKING AT BRISTOL
While the Cardinals have won four league championships since 2010, this is Bristol’s first playoff appearance since 2002.
Bristol won five of its nine games against the Cardinals and challenged for the divisional title until the next-to-last day of the regular season. The Pirates clinched their playoff berth with a 4-2 win over Bluefield on Wednesday night.
Second baseman Francisco Acuna is the Pirates’ leading hitter with a .293 average. The 19-year-old cooled off in the later part of the season, going 4 for 32 (.125) over his final 10 games.
The Bristol pitching staff is strong at the back end with Samson Abernathy being one of the league’s top closers. Abernathy finished with eight saves to tie for the Appy League lead. That’s the most for a Bristol pitcher in nine seasons.
The Pirates are one of two Appy league teams with a losing record at home, finishing the regular season at 15-18 at DeVault Stadium. The other was Greenville who was 13-22 at Pioneer Park.
However, Bristol finished tied with Pulaski for the most regular season road wins with 19.
Everybody in the Appy League wants to be promoted, but for Johnson City, Liam Sabino’s promotion couldn’t have come at a worst time.
Sabino, one of Johnson City’s most consistent players all year, was yanked from the roster with one game to go in the regular season. He was promoted to State College of the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League.
Sabino hit .282 with six home runs and 33 RBIs. His RBI total was second on the team to Redmond’s. He went 0 for 3 in his State College debut on Wednesday night. His new team is 36-35 and three games out of first place in its division.
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Appalachian League playoffs
Johnson City at Bristol, 6:30 p.m.
Bristol at Johnson City, 6:30 p.m.
x-Bristol at Johnson City, 5 p.m.
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Pulaski at Burlington, 6:30 p.m.
Burlington at Pulaski, 6:30 p.m.
x-Burlington at Pulaski, 6:30 p.m.
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JC Cards playoff history
1986: Lost to Pulaski 2–1 in finals.
1987: Lost to Burlington 2–0 in finals.
1994: Lost to Princeton 2–1 in finals.
2010: Defeated Burlington 2–0 in semifinals; defeated Elizabethton 2–0 to win championship.
2011: Defeated Danville 2–1 in semifinals; defeated Bluefield 2–1 to win championship.
2012: Lost to Burlington 2–1 in semifinals.
2014: Defeated Elizabethton 2–1 in semifinals; defeated Danville 2–1 to win championship.
2016: Defeated Elizabethton 2–1 in semifinals; defeated Burlington 2–0 to win championship.