KODAK, TN. - The Biloxi Shuckers forced a rubber match against the Tennessee Smokies on Monday night, after sweeping Sunday's doubleheader, 5-0 and 6-5, at Smokies Stadium.
A night after allowing nine runs in two innings, the Shuckers' bullpen answered the call with 7.1 innings of shutout baseball against the Smokies to secure both victories.
The Sunday sweep pushes the Shuckers' South Division lead to 1.5 games over Pensacola, and are now 4-5 on the road trip.
Josh Hader continued his fantastic start to the 2016 season, shutting out the Smokies over five innings on two hits, three walks and five strikeouts, as the southpaw needed 86 pitches - 57 strikes - to work through the afternoon.
The Maryland native did run into trouble in both the fourth and fifth innings as the first two batters of each frame reach safely both times, but the 22-year-old wiggled his way out of both jams by utilizing the double-play ball to keep Tennessee off the board and lower his ERA to a league leading 0.79.
The southpaw's five strikeouts raised his season total to 59, another top statistic in the Southern League.
Paul Blackburn was just as effective for Tennessee as Hader was for Biloxi, as the right-hander allowed four hits and struck out four over six innings. The 22-year-old lowered his ERA to 0.96.
Brooks Hall (1-0) took over for Hader out of the bullpen and worked three scoreless innings of relief for his first win with Biloxi this season. The right-hander allowed one hit and struck out two.
The Shuckers finally cracked the scoreboard in the ninth inning that started with a leadoff single from Jacob Nottingham (2x4, R) to left. A wild pitch and a walk to Victor Roache (0x3, R, BB) put the first two batters on for Omar Garcia (0x1), who popped up a sacrifice attempt, but the ball was dropped by pitcher David Garner to put runners at every base.
A free pass to Tyrone Taylor (1x3, R, RBI, BB) drove in Nottingham the first run of the game, and Chris McFarland's (2x4, R, RBI) single plated Roache for the second run of the inning. Garrett Cooper (1x2, 2B, 3 RBI) doubled to left with two outs to clear the bases and blow the game open to a 5-0 lead for the visitors.
Stephen Kohlscheen pitched a perfect ninth, with a punchout to his line, on just 13 pitches to secure the Shuckers' fifth shutout of 2016.
Biloxi's (26-17) offense picked up where it left off to start game two of the doubleheader with Cooper driving in Garcia with a sharp single to center, scoring the runner from second for a 1-0 advantage. McFarland singled home Cooper with a two-out liner to left to give the Shuckers an early 2-0 lead.
Tennessee (20-24) fought back with a run in the bottom half of the inning on Bijan Rademacher's single to center, plating Chesny Young from second.
Shuckers' game-two starter Jorge Ortega kept the Smokies off the board in the second despite a one-out double off the bat of Carlos Penalver, but ran into trouble in the third.
Jeimer Candelario singled with one out for Tennessee and advanced to second on a balk with Rademacher at the plate. A walk to Tennessee's first baseman set up David Freita's double to the wall in center, scoring both runners and putting Biloxi in a one-run deficit.
The difference would not last long as the Shuckers scratched across two runs of their own in the fourth. Penalver singled and moved up to second on
Rene Garcia (1x3, R, BB) singled to start things off and moved to third on Brandon Macias' (1x4, R, 2B) double to center. Ortega helped his own cause with a bullet to left to score Garcia and tie the game at three. Omar Garcia's (1x2, 2 R, RBI, 2 BB, 3 SB) fielder's choice allowed Macias to score for the 4-3 lead.
Tennessee responded with a two-spot of its own in the home half of the fourth to jump back out in front of Biloxi.
Penalver singled and advanced to second on Tyler Skulina's sacrifice bunt. After Young flew out to center and moved Penalver to third, Jacob Hannemann drove home the runner with a base hit to center and knot the game at four apiece. A free pass to Billy McKinney loaded the bases and ended Ortega's night, as Shuckers' manager Mike Guerrero called upon Brett Lee (2-0) out of the bullpen.
The left-hander walked Rademacher to force in the go-ahead run before striking out Freitas to end the inning.
The seesaw contest continued from there, as Biloxi scored two more times in the sixth to retake the lead for the third time in game two.
Kyle Wren (0x0, R, BB) and Omar Garcia walked to start the inning against reliever Josh Conway (0-5), paving the way for Nick Shaw's (0x4) fly out to right to move Wren to third. With the runners at the corners, Cooper smacked a sacrifice fly to right to tie the clubs at five. Nick Ramirez (2x2, 2B, RBI, 2 BB) smoked a double to the gap in left center to score Garcia and put the Shuckers back up by a run.
Daniel Tillman (SV, 1) took the mound in the seventh and walked Kelly Dugan with one out, but set down the final two batters to lock down his first save of the season.
The two teams will battle it out in the rubber match at 6:05 p.m. Monday night from Smokies Stadium. LHP Wei-Chung Wang (2-2, 3.65) takes the mound for Biloxi, while RHP Brad Markey (4-1, 2.59) starts for Tennessee.