MADISON – The Rocket City Trash Pandas season came to an end Friday night in a 3-1 loss to the Tennessee Smokies in Game 3 of the North Division Series at Toyota Field.
The Smokies used power pitching to win both games at Toyota Field, allowing just three runs over the two games to win the series two games to one. Tennessee advances to the Southern League Championship Series against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Trash Pandas starter Mason Erla worked around a one-out single in the first to begin the night with a scoreless frame. In the second, he retired the side in order, with the help of his defense. With two outs and nobody on, Luis Vazquez crushed Erla’s 1-1 pitch to deep center. Racing back to the wall, Trash Pandas center fielder Bryce Teodosio made an incredible leaping catch near the fence to rob Vazquez of extra bases and keep the game scoreless.
Tennessee starter Chris Clark was equally as sharp, setting down the first six Trash Pandas in order.
Leading off the third, former Angels farmhand Harrison Wenson homered to left field for a 1-0 Tennessee lead. Singles from Yonathan Perlaza and Jake Slaughter put two on with one out. Erla escaped further damage by striking out Bryce Ball and getting Nelson Maldonado to ground out, ending the inning with one run across. That would be Erla’s final inning. Over three innings, Erla allowed one run on four hits, striking out five.
In the bottom of the inning, Jeremiah Jackson roped a leadoff single to start the inning, the first base runner against Clarke. Teodosio also singled, and Zach Neto walked to load the bases with one out. In a patient eight-pitch at-bat, Preston Palmeiro took a walk to tie the game 1-1. Clarke (W, 1-0) also got through the inning with one run across, getting Logan O’Hoppe to pop up to first and Aaron Whitefield to fly out to right, leaving the bases loaded.
Coleman Crow made a rare relief appearance for the Trash Pandas in the fourth, striking out a pair in a one, two, three inning. Luke Murphy (L, 0-1) was next into the game for Rocket City in the fifth and struggled, as a walk and a throwing error on a bunt put two on with nobody out. Slaughter put the Smokies back in front with a single to center, plating Wenson. The run was the first allowed by Murphy at home in the entire season, spanning 20 relief appearances and 27.2 innings. He left the bases loaded, striking out Cole Roederer to end his only inning on the mound.
Closer Eric Torres entered early in the top of the sixth to keep the game close, and he did just that by throwing two scoreless innings, ending his night with a strikeout of Roederer to strand runners on second and third in the seventh.
For Tennessee, Clarke pitched six strong innings, allowing one run on five hits with one walk and seven strikeouts. Samuel Reyes was first out of the bullpen in the seventh and got out of a jam by striking out Palmeiro to end the inning with runners on first and second.
Tennessee native and former Vol Ben Joyce was called on in the eighth for Rocket City and struck out the first two men he faced. However, Wenson followed by delivering the crushing blow, a solo homer to left and a 3-1 Smokies lead in the eighth.
From there, Reyes (S, 1) pitched a scoreless eighth and Kolton Ingram did the same in the ninth for Rocket City. Down to their last three outs, the Trash Pandas began the inning with a single by Jackson. But Reyes ended the game by retiring the next three hitters, finishing the series by getting Zach Neto to pop out to Strumpf at second.
The loss wraps up an incredible season for the Trash Pandas that saw them finish as first- and and second-half regular season champions with a record of 81-57, ending with the regular season with the most home wins in Minor League Baseball at 49.
The 2003 season begins April 6 when the Chattanooga Lookouts visit Toyota Field.