Tony Renda got his money’s worth with one payoff pitch.
With one swing of a bat, Hagerstown’s second baseman turned it into a payday for the Suns.
Renda connected on Aroni’s Nina’s full-count fastball and launched it for a triple to lead off the third inning, breaking the seal for Hagerstown’s offense to ignite a 6-0 victory over Lexington on a chilly, windy Friday at Municipal Stadium.
It didn’t seem like much at the time, but was the groundwork that laid the foundation for an early lead for the Suns. It gave the edge to Hagerstown’s pitching until the Suns blew the game open with a five-run fifth, again with Renda taking center stage.
“That’s what Tony does … he’s our catalyst,” said Suns manager Tripp Keister. “He gets us going and he gets on base. He always seems to be in the middle of everything.”
On an unusually frigid night, that made all the difference in the world. The early lead put starter Pedro Encarnacion (4-3) in control, even though he had some control issues, while the Legends continued to have trouble reaching base.
“It was a tough night to hit,” said Suns manager Tripp Keister. “Our pitchers did a great job. Pedro went five innings and then Jason Smith
came in and made his debut this season here. And then (Bryan) Harper came in and did a great job. They all came in and pounded the strike zone. All three guys did a nice job.”
The victory allowed the Suns (28-16) to maintain their hold on the South Atlantic League Northern Division lead. Hagerstown is up three games on Hickory with three weeks remaining in the first half of the season.
It all started when Renda won the battle with Nina.
Renda opened the third by slicing a 3-2 pitch down the right-field line and into the Suns bullpen for a triple. Wes Schill promptly put the Suns up 1-0 with a grounder to short.
“It wasn’t the hardest hit ball,” Renda said. “It was a 3-2 count and I got the barrel on a fastball and put it in the right spot. It wasn’t a protection swing because I knew he was going to come with a fastball.”
The run allowed Encarnacion to make a statement of his own as he struck out the side in the fourth to protect the lead and squirmed out of a tight situation in the fifth.
It allowed Hagerstown to finish the Legends (24-24) off in the fifth.
Hagerstown did what it does best — manufacture runs — to score five times while batting around to build the lead to 6-0.
Wilmer Difo drew a one-out walk and stole second before Tony Renda walked. After both runners advanced on a passed ball, Schill hit a sharp grounder to second to score Difo. After Shawn Pleffner walked, Brandon Miller hit an RBI single to right to score Renda and end the night for Nina (1-3).
Alec Mills came on and didn’t fare much better.
Mills walked Estarlin Martinez to load the bases before allowing Will Piwnica-Worms to hit a two-run single. Stephen Perez added another RBI single, scoring Martinez before Piwnica Worms was tagged out in a rundown to end the inning.
“We really needed that inning, especially with the wind,” Keister said. “We were ahead but they still were able to stay in striking distance.
Encarnacion went five shutout innings, allowing two hits while walking five and striking out five. He pitched out of trouble in the third after walking the bases loaded with two outs before getting Michael Antonio to foul out to end the threat.
Encarnacion turned the game to Smith, who made his Suns debut after being called up from extended spring training
before the game. Smith pitched three innings, allowing a hit and four strikeouts before Harper came on to set Lexington down in order in the ninth.
The Suns pitchers are riding a streak of 23 scoreless innings. Lexington owns 18 of them, only managing seven hits in 59 at bats (.118) in the first two games of the series.