Naturals win first series of the season

RC was in Springdale this weekend, watching the NW Arkansas Naturals take on the San Antonio Missions. Behind a strong bullpen and some timely hitting, the Naturals on Saturday took the rubber match of the three-game set, 4-3. RC provides all the details inside.

SPRINGDALE, Ar. – Thanks to a stellar bullpen performance and some two-out, late inning heroics, the NW Arkansas Naturals on Saturday night defeated the San Antonio Missions, 4-3. With the win, the Naturals claimed their first series win of the year against a tough, prospect-laden San Antonio team.

Much like Friday night's 13-1 drubbing, Northwest Arkansas got off to an ominous start. Starting pitcher Eduardo Paulino walked the first batter of the game, and Missions' first baseman Mitch Canham immediately followed with an RBI triple to center field. Cantham then scored when the next batter, second baseman Logan Forsythe, drove him in with a hard single to left field. Three batters into the game, the Naturals trailed 2-0. After a coaching visit to the mound, Paulino settled down, and he got out of the inning without suffering any further damage.

In the bottom of the first, the Naturals responded with two runs of their own. First baseman Clint Robinson singled with two outs, and designated hitter Ernesto Mejia followed with a booming, no-doubt home run to left-center, knotting the game at two.

It stayed that way until the top of the fourth, when San Antonio's Luis Martinez launched a Paulino offering into the picnic tables beyond the left field wall. Paulino (4.0 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K) finished the inning and exited the game, giving way to southpaw Blaine Hardy.

Hardy, who pitched all of last season in Low-A Burlington, had an outstanding Double-A debut. He held the line for three scoreless innings, throwing 29 of his 44 pitches for strikes while surrendering just one hit (a bunt single) and striking out two batters. The 23-year-old Hardy reached his pitch count after the seventh, and heading into the bottom of the frame, the Naturals still trailed, 3-2.

With one out in the bottom of the seventh, shortstop Anthony Seratelli drew a walk and advanced to second on a Paulo Orlando grounder to short. Looking to take advantage of the man in scoring position, Naturals manager Brian Poldberg called on the red hot Manny Pina to pinch hit for catcher Ryan Eigsti. The move paid off, as Pina drilled a hard single into left center, tying the game at 3-3.

The Naturals summoned southpaw reliever Brandon Sisk from the bullpen to start the eighth, and he made short work of the first two hitters he faced, recording outs on a pop-up to short and a ground out to second. With two outs, however, his control hit a bit of a wall, and he ran a couple of deep counts while surrendering a single and a walk. Thankfully, with two on and two out, Sisk worked through his momentary lapse in control and caught Missions' third baseman James Darnell looking on a 90 mph fastball.

In the bottom of the eighth, leadoff hitter Johnny Giavotella was hit by a pitch, and he was advanced to second on a beautiful (and surprising) sacrifice bunt by Clint Robinson. The Missions then worked around Mejia, who drew a walk. With men on first and second and just one out, left fielder Tim Smith struck out, bringing third baseman Kurt Mertins to the plate. After a great at bat, Mertins lined a clutch single up the middle, and Giavotella came around to score the go-ahead run.

With the Naturals' first lead of the game, Poldberg gave a vote of confidence to Sisk, electing to allow him to come back out for the ninth despite a shaky eighth. The 24-year-old reliever rewarded that confidence, recording a 1-2-3 inning while securing the Naturals' second victory of the young season. On the final play of the game, Giavotella turned in the defensive highlight of the series. The second baseman ranged far to his right to flag a hard grounder up the middle, made a leaping, off balanced throw across his body, and retired Missions shortstop Jesus Lopez at first by a step.

On Sunday afternoon, the Naturals (2-1) begin another three-game series, playing host to the Corpus Christi Hooks (3-0). Rule-5 draftee Edgar Osuna is scheduled to make his first start of the season for the Naturals, opposed by the Hooks' Jordan Lyles.

Misc. Note:

In a first for RC, the game was delayed for a couple of minutes prior to the bottom of the second inning when a seventh-month-old beagle involved in an adopt-a-pet promotion got loose on the field. Dodging the hapless ballpark personnel who were trying to catch her, the dog made her way to short center field where she, ahem, "left" something for an intern to clean up, to thunderous applause from the partisan, dog-loving crowd. The Naturals staff eventually managed to corral the beast, and the game continued as planned. As of posting time, there was no word on whether or not the dog was adopted.

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