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Chris Iriart connects for a grand slam

Southern Illinois Miners Chris Iriart (5) connects for a grand slam home run during a preseason exhibition game against Gateway at Rent One Park in Marion.

MARION — As Chris Iriart started his first season with the Miners in a 3 for 25 skid that featured an unsightly 13 strikeouts, manager Mike Pinto looked the other way.

He saw the guy who belted a Frontier League-high 25 homers last year in Normal, where the ballpark is almost as big as the Grand Canyon. He saw the guy who hit a homer late last season at Rent One Park that nearly cleared one of the light poles in left field.

In short, Pinto saw the result that Iriart produced in the fifth inning Saturday night.

The quick, violent swing that sends baseballs to faraway places did so for the first time in Southern Illinois, rocketing a two-run bomb to cap a 5-0 win over Windy City that gave the Miners their first series victory of 2019.

Austin Dubsky tossed six shutout innings to earn the win, while Cletis Avery followed up his game-tying and winning RBI singles of Friday night by going 2 for 4 with his first pro homer and two RBIs. Anthony Brocato belted two triples.

But the main story was Iriart, the lineup’s unquestioned hammer who made a big yard play really small for the first time this year.

“I got tired of trying to get him out last year,” Pinto said, laughing. “You see 400 (feet) to (center), but then it starts jutting out as you go to the left. He probably hit that 420, 425 and it’s a tough part of the ballpark to hit it that far, and he hit it into a cross-wind.”

On a 2-2 pitch from former Miner Chris Washington (0-2), Iriart left little doubt. The towering drive cleared the wall just to the left of the batter’s eye, scoring Stephen Lohr with the game’s final two runs.

It was nearly Iriart’s second homer of the game. His first inning fly ball got aid from the wind and reached the warning track before David Oppenheim hauled it in. That turned into a double play when Lohr was caught off first for the inning’s third out.

What could have been seen as an omen in one direction instead turned into a clue in the other. Iriart was about ready to leave the yard.

“We know what he’s capable of,” Pinto said. “He doesn’t get cheated, and he doesn’t get cheap homers – ever. It’s just a matter of him getting comfortable here.”

Dubsky (1-1) is always comfortable at Rent One, where he improved to 6-2 in his Miners career. The righthander followed up a shaky loss last Saturday night in Evansville by bowing his back in tough spots, stranding seven runners over his six innings.

The ThunderBolts (3-6) helped. Poor baserunning decisions may have cost them runs in the second and third innings. But Dubsky also made his best pitches when necessary. He escaped a second and third spot with no outs in the third with a strikeout, pop-up and lineout.

“He stayed with it and got out of the inning,” Pinto said. “He did a good job of staying in the moment and not letting the moment take over.”

Southern Illinois (4-4) pounded out four straight hits with one out in the second. Brocato ripped his first triple and rode home on Arturo Nieto’s RBI single to right. Avery roped a 1-0 fastball over the fence in left for a 3-0 advantage.

That was all the offense Dubsky and three relievers required, but Iriart supplied a rather vivid reminder of why Pinto was ecstatic to add him to a lineup which needed legitimate juice.

“You don’t see too many people hit it out there,” a grinning Pinto said.

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