FORT WAYNE, Ind. – J.J. Matijevic and the Quad-Cities River Bandits opened the Midwest League Championship Series with a bang on Wednesday.
Matijevic blasted a three-run home run to cap a five-run first inning and Quad-Cities relievers Jesus Balaguer and Robert Corniel scattered two hits over 5.1 shutout innings to lead the River Bandits to a 6-3 win over Fort Wayne in the first game of the best-of-five series.
Quad-Cities jumped all over TinCaps starter Pedro Avila in the first inning, opening the game with back-to-back singles by Chas McCormick and Colin Moran that sparked a quick five-run start for Quad-Cities.
A groundout by Chuckie Robinson and a triple by Abraham Toro-Hernandez brought the River Bandits first two runs home before Matijevic unloaded on a fastball, driving a three-run shot over the right-center field wall on a rainy night at Parkview Field.
“To get off to the kind of start we did in a big game, to put five runs up in the first, that was big,’’ Matijevic said. “I went up in my first at-bat looking fastball and he threw me one in that I was able to put a good swing on.’’
Robinson followed with a solo homer to left with one out in the top of the third, about the only other chance Avila gave Quad-Cities during a six-inning start.
Obtained by the Padres from the Nationals organization in a straight-up trade for major league catcher Derek Norris, the 5-foot-11 right hander struck out 12 River Bandits and walked just one while scattering seven hits.
“He’s got great stuff. We were able to get on his fastball early, which was good because he was mixing three or four pitches very, very well later on,’’ Quad-Cities manager Russ Steinhorn said. “He was traded for a big leaguer for a reason.’’
The TinCaps answered the River Bandits initial surge in the bottom half of the first when Nate Easley followed a leadoff walk to Jack Suwinski with a homer to left-center off of Quad-Cities starter Cristian Javier.
The River Bandits’ right hander worked himself in and out of trouble throughout a start that ended in the bottom of fourth after a hard-hit single to right by Justin Lopez brought home Jorge Ona, who had reached on a leadoff walk.
Entering the game with two on and two out, Balaguer struck out Easley to send a 6-3 game into the fifth inning.
Balaguer worked three scoreless innings before Corniel entered with a runner on third and two outs in the seventh.
He got Brad Zunica to hit into an inning-ending groundout, retired Fort Wayne in order in the eighth and used a double play to face the minimum in the ninth after Robbie Podorsky reached on a leadoff single.
“Our bullpen was outstanding,’’ Steinhorn said. “Both guys came in with runners on third and got out of it. It was exactly what we needed, a lockdown effort out of the pen to protect the lead we took.’’
Balaguer and Corniel combined to limit the TinCaps to a pair of singles over the final 5.1 innings, following a seven-strikeout start by Javier by working the strike zone themselves.
They walked just one batter and added nine additional strikeouts to a 15-strikeout performance by the River Bandits’ three pitchers.
Quad-Cities batters were retired on strikeouts 16 times, including four during three hitless innings of relief by Jim McDade.
McCormick and Moran each collected a pair of singles in the top two spots in the Quad-Cities order, setting the type of tone that Matijevic said carried over to the rest of the lineup.
“The guys up top are doing a good job of seeing a lot of pitches, having good at-bats,’’ Matijevic said. “Chas stepped up and got us going and we just went to work. It’s good to come out and get that first game. It’s the start we wanted.’’