MARION — Home runs gave the Miners the lead.
Pitching and defense protected it.
Nolan Earley homered twice and four pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts Saturday night as Southern Illinois trimmed Lake Erie 3-2 at Rent One Park, cinching a series win to start the Frontier League campaign.
The most important punchout might have come to end the top of the eighth inning. Walking the tightrope, reliever Austin Dubsky allowed a single, walk and two wild pitches to put the potential go-ahead runs into scoring position.
But the hard-throwing Dubsky quelled the fire with a perfectly-executed 3-2 breaking ball to designated hitter Sean Hurley. The bat never moved off Hurley’s shoulder as plate ump Eric Dunsford rung him up for his fourth strikeout of the night.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to go with the pitch that you think you can get the guy out with,” Miners manager Mike Pinto said. “That was a great call by (catcher Conor Sullivan) and Doobs to go to the breaking ball.”
An inning earlier, Sullivan came up with a rally-stopper. Dubsky got Bryan De La Rosa to sucker for a breaking ball in the turf for the second out with runners at first and second. Conner Simonetti foolishly tried to take third even though the ball bounced no more than 10 feet from Sullivan, and he was nailed by at least 10 feet to end the inning.
Given his first chance to secure a save, John Werner followed up a franchise-record 22-save season in 2017 with a dominant ninth. He worked a 1-2-3 inning with two called third strikes.
Offensively, Southern Illinois managed just four hits, a night after pounding out 17. But three of those four left the ballpark, including Earley’s tie-breaking shot in the sixth that curled inside the left field foul pole.
“He pulled one that almost hit the scoreboard,” Pinto said of Earley’s second inning blast to right-center, “and then he hits one out the other way.”
Chance Shepard supplied his second homer in as many nights, wiping out the Crushers’ brief 2-1 lead in the sixth with a bomb that carried well over 400 feet to left-center, traditionally the hardest spot to hit a homer at Rent One.
Former Cardinals farmhand Kurt Heyer earned the win for the Miners by going six innings. Heyer allowed just three hits and two runs with a walk and seven strikeouts, throwing 54 of his 73 pitches for strikes.
“He just came out and pounded the zone,” Pinto said.
Southern Illinois aims for a series sweep today at 5:05 p.m. Geno Encina will oppose Lake Erie’s Juan Perez in a battle of righthanders.