BILOXI – Max Kepler backed up his Southern League MVP award with a two-homer performance, lifting the Chattanooga Lookouts to a 6-1 victory over the Biloxi Shuckers Thursday night.
The German had a solo homer, a grand slam and knocked in five runs as the Lookouts evened the Southern League Championship Series, 1-1, before a crowd of 3,173 at MGM Park.
“He's been doing it all year,” Chattanooga manager Doug Mientkiewicz said. “They've been pitching him so tough in the playoff series and over the last three weeks. To see the growth of him, see him turn into a man, it's pretty fun to watch.”
The big blow from Kepler came in the top of the fifth when he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two out. The left-handed Kepler lifted the first pitch he saw well over the right field wall to push the Chattanooga lead to 5-0 and put the game out of reach for the Shuckers, who didn't have a hit until the sixth inning.
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Kepler also added a nice diving catch in left field in the fourth for what was a well-rounded night at the ballpark for the native of Berlin.
“The catch he made in left field really settled down the game for us,” Mientkiewicz said.
Shuckers starting pitcher Adrian Houser lasted 4 2/3 innings, giving up five earned runs on three hits to take the loss.
Houser walked three batters, including two costly walks in the the fifth inning to help load the bases for Hepler's grand slam.
“He was (a little off), but he only gave up three hits,” Biloxi manager Carlos Subero said. “Kepler hit a solo homer and a grand slam. Other than that, he was able to stay in there.”
Biloxi had a prime opportunity to cut into the 5-0 deficit in the bottom of the sixth with Nick Shaw, Yadiel Rivera and Orlando Arcia coming through with three straight singles to start the inning.
The first man up with the bases loaded, Michael Reed, lined out to third. Garrett Cooper grounded out to second to bring home Shaw and Tyrone Taylor grounded out to the end the inning with only one run across.
Shaw's single to lead off the sixth was the Shuckers' first hit of the game as Chattanooga's Jason Wheeler put in a quality outing on the mound.
“He nibbled enough around the zone at this level to where he was able to get away with it. I don't think he particularly had good command on it,” Subero said of Wheeler. “The inning where he got in trouble, he was able to execute pitches and come out with just one run.”
The left-handed Wheeler allowed one run on three hits in seven innings. He struck out five and walked three.
“He has the ability to elevate the fastball,” Mientkiewicz said. “He's a left-hander so he has a high angle. He doesn't really throw that hard, but he can spot it in and out or up and down. He's got an extra gear to the fastball. He elevated it and he was able to get it by some elite hitters.”
Biloxi shortstop Orlando Arcia's streak of three consecutive games with a home run came to an end Thursday. He finished 1-of-4 with a single.
“I think Jason just made better pitches to (Arcia),” Mientkiewicz said. “The kid is human. He'll make outs eventually. He's not the guy you want at the plate by any stretch of the imagination. You try to get him to chase the ball and put it in play somewhere else than over the fence.”
Shaw, who batted ninth, was the only Shucker with multiple hits, going 2-for-3 with a run scored.
Heiker Meneses, Shannon Wilkerson and Kepler each had two hits for the Lookouts.
Game three of the series is set for 6:15 p.m. Saturday in Chattanooga with right-hander Tyler Wagner scheduled to get the start for Biloxi.