Naturals drop 2 of 3, despite strong pitching

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals received quality pitching over the weekend, but the offense combined for just 17 hits in three games while the club dropped two of its three games. RC recaps the Naturals' weekend action inside.

Double-A: NW Arkansas Naturals – Weekend report

Friday: San Antonio 5, NW Arkansas 4
Saturday: NW Arkansas 5, San Antonio 2
Sunday: Corpus Christi 3, NW Arkansas 2

After defeating the San Antonio Missions on Thursday night's home opener, the Naturals dropped game two of the three-game set on Friday, 5-4. Blake Johnson made his second start of the season, going 4.1 innings while surrendering four runs on nine hits while picking up his first loss of the season. After surrendering two runs in the opening frame, the 23-year-old right-hander settled down a bit, blanking the Missions over the next three innings.

Johnson ran into trouble in the fifth, however, surrendering two more runs while recording just one out. After loading the bases, reliever Carlos Sencion was summoned from the bullpen. Sencion induced a pop-up and a fly ball to get out of the jam, and the bullpen was excellent the rest of the way. Sencion, Kyle Crist, and Victor Marte combined to pitch 4.2 innings in relief, surrendering just one more run on five hits.

The offense plated a run in the first, but was shut out for the next six innings. Trailing 5-1 in the eighth, the Naturals finally mounted a rally, scoring three runs on Brian McFall's third home run of the season. McFall's dinger came with nobody out, and the Naturals followed by loading the bases on a single, a hit batter, and a walk. However, the rally failed to result in any more runs when Joe Dickerson was retired on a soft liner to center field, ending the inning.

At the plate, centerfielder Jose Duarte continued his tear, going 2-for-3 with a pair of walks and his league-best sixth stolen base of the season. Mario Lisson was 1-for-4 with an RBI, and McFall finished 1-for-5 with his three-run homer.

In Saturday's rubber match, right-hander Blake Wood started for the Naturals, going three innings while surrendering two runs on three hits and three walks. The bullpen was the real story, however, as Chris Nicoll (2 IP) and Chris Hayes (4 IP) combined for six scoreless innings, allowing a total of just four hits and one walk while striking out a pair of batters. Hayes picked up his second win of the season, lowering his ERA to 1.35 in the process as the Naturals prevailed, 5-2.

The Naturals did all of their scoring in the fifth and sixth innings. McFall started the fun with an RBI single in the fifth, and Jeff Howell added a sacrifice fly to knot the game at two. In the sixth, the Naturals scored three soft runs to take a three-run lead. Kurt Mertins walked and scored on a fielding error by the Missions' left fielder, and Lisson scored when outfielder Jordan Parraz was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. Third baseman Cory Smith, who walked, later scored on a fielding error by the shortstop.

The Naturals recorded just four hits, but the pitching and defensive woes by the Missions allowed the Naturals to win their second series of the year. There really weren't any offensive stars for NW Arkansas on Saturday, but both Lisson and McFall were 1-for-4, and Smith scored two runs.

On Sunday afternoon, the Naturals welcomed the Corpus Christi Hooks for a three-game series, but the club lost the series opener, 3-2. The Nats wasted a brilliant starting effort by Matt Kniginyzky, who pitched six strong innings, surrendering just one run on seven hits.

The 26-year-old right-hander had to settle for a no decision when Greg Holland – who hadn't allowed a run in his first three appearances – gave up the Nats' one-run lead in the seventh inning. Holland worked just the one inning, surrendering two runs on three hits, and he was saddled with his first blown save and first loss of the season. Gilbert De La Vara pitched the final two innings, blanking the Missions while allowing just one hit.

The Naturals scored their only two runs in the second inning, when Josh Johnson walked and catcher John Suomi slammed a two-run home run, his second of the season, to right field. Suomi finished 1-for-3, and the 28-year-old backstop is currently hitting .353/.429/.765 on the season in 17 at bats. Duarte was 2-for-3 with a walk, pushing his batting average to .375 and his on-base percentage to an impressive .475. In all, the Nats' offense managed just five hits on the day.

Game two of the three-game series is set for Monday night, with Dan Cortes on the mound for NW Arkansas (5-5). Cortes, the Royals' top pitching prospect, is off to a rough start this season, going 0-2 in his first two starts with a bloated 8.10 ERA. The 22-year-old right-handed did pitch better in his last outing, however, yielding just one earned run in 3.2 innings while striking out five batters on Tuesday.

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