CEDAR RAPIDS — In the opening game of the postseason, the stage may have been a little bigger and the stakes a little higher, but one thing didn’t change Wednesday night for the Quad-Cities River Bandits.
Valente Bellozo showed up at Veterans Memorial Stadium ready to work.
The River Bandits’ right-hander set an aggressive tone from the start of a 4-1 victory over Cedar Rapids, combining with Luis De Paula and Layne Henderson on a five-hit, 12-strikeout effort in the first game of the best-of-three Midwest League Western Division semifinal series.
“Bellozo’s a bulldog out there. He has confidence in every pitch he throws, and when we talked before the game with (pitching coach Erick) Abreu, it was all about doing what he has been doing since he got here, one pitch after another," Quad-Cities catcher Alex Holderbach said. "It was just another game for him."
Bellozo kept the Kernels off balance with an effective change up and slider, striking out six and scattering four hits over six innings before De Paula and Henderson sent the series back to Modern Woodmen Park for today’s 6:35 p.m. second game by limiting the Kernels to one hit over the final three innings.
"Great start by Bellozo. We thought we had a good match-up there and he delivered," River Bandits manager Ray Hernandez said. "De Paula and Henderson came in and threw well. It was just a good start to the series."
Alex McKenna scored runs which pushed the River Bandits in front twice after reaching on two of the first three hits allowed by Cedar Rapids starter Luis Rijo.
McKenna’s first hit came with two out in the top of the second inning and it didn’t reach the pitcher’s mound.
An errant throw by Kernels catcher Chris Williams as McKenna stole second allowed him to reach third and positioned him to score the game’s first run when Rijo bounced a pitch in front of the plate that sailed over the head and beyond the reach of Williams.
"Just trying to be aggressive. That’s been our approach all season and that won’t change now," McKenna said. "We came out trying to make some things happen, take a base when it’s there for the taking."
Three innings later, McKenna put the River Bandits ahead to stay when he broke a 1-1 tie Cedar Rapids had forged in the third when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Ramiro Rodriguez.
McKenna had opened the inning with a base hit that deflected off of Kernels first baseman Gabe Snyder and into shallow right field, then advanced to third on a single to left-center by Alex Holderbach.
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"Some good baserunning by McKenna, all night really. He got us going," Hernandez said.
Cedar Rapids unsuccessfully appealed that McKenna had left third early after tagging up and racing home on a fly ball by Rodriguez to left.
The River Bandits extended their margin to 4-1 in the eighth when Wilyer Abreu split the gap in right center for his second double of the game, driving home Grae Kessinger and Oscar Campos after each had singled.
"We needed that double," Hernandez said. "It was 2-1 and those two extra runs, Abreu answered our prayers with that double. It couldn’t have come at a better time."
Cedar Rapids, which finished second in the league with 109 home runs during the regular season, used the long ball to tie the game in the bottom of the third inning.
Tyler Webb opened the Kernels’ half of the inning by driving a 3-2 pitch over the fence in left, the first home run allowed by Bellozo in 112-plus innings of work as a professional.
It didn’t faze the 19-year-old right-hander.
Bellozo retired the next three Kernels he faced and did not allow more than one hit in any of the season-high six innings he worked.
"He came out ready to pound the zone, just attacked, and no matter what, he kept his composure, kept fighting," Hernandez said. "It was a heck of a start for him."
And that led the River Bandits to the start they wanted in the series.
"Going back home up 1-0 in the series, that’s big as we get a chance to play in front of our fans again," said Holderbach, who joined McKenna and Abreu with a pair of hits as part of a 10-hit game for Quad-Cities. "This was a big win for us, exactly the way we wanted to start."