By Aaron McFarling
Matty’s gonna score.
That was Cody Koback’s first thought when he saw the throw soar over the first basemen’s head. Matty Johnson was on second, Koback thought. Matty is fast. Matty’s gonna score.
Koback’s second thought? Teammates soon would be rushing him. Time for some self-preservation.
“Just try to stay on your feet,” Koback said with a smile, “so you don’t get cleated in the face or anything like that.”
Koback didn’t get spiked during the celebration, but he did receive a shaving-cream pie after his infield single in the bottom of the 10th inning led Salem to a 1-0, walk-off victory over Myrtle Beach on Wednesday in Game 1 of the Southern Division Championship Series.
“This is my first experience in playoff baseball,” said Johnson, who raced to the plate after Drew Robinson’s off-balance, errant throw. “It’s good to go into Myrtle Beach with a win under our belt. It’ll make this bus ride a lot easier.”
The best-of-three series shifts to South Carolina at 7:05 tonight, with Salem lefty Brian Johnson (1-0, 1.64) scheduled to face Pelicans right-hander Alex Gonzalez (0-0, 2.84). The Sox, chasing Salem’s first Carolina League title since 2001, will show the broadcast live on the video screen at Salem Memorial Ballpark. Gates open at 6:30, and concession stands will be running.
The enthusiastic crowd of 4,047 that showed up Wednesday was treated to a classic pitching duel between Salem’s Luiz
Diaz and Pelicans right-hander Alec Asher. The teams combined for 12 hits, no runs and a slew of defensive highlights over the first nine innings before Salem won the game without hitting a ball out of the infield.
Johnson got things started with a one-out infield single, followed by Henry Ramos’ chopper to second that also went for a hit.
Koback, a role player who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the ninth, chopped a 1-2 pitch toward third. A charging Robinson made a nice barehanded pickup but got too much on the throw, setting off a wild celebration down the rightfield line.
“Didn’t expect that at the beginning of the day,” Koback said. “It feels great. It’s only a three-game series, so the first game is really important, I think.”
Both starters grasped the importance and thrived under the pressure. Diaz worked eight scoreless innings – matching the longest outing of his career – allowing five hits and no walks while striking out four.
The only real trouble he encountered came in the second, when Trever Adams and Royce Bolinger started the inning with back-to-back singles. But Diaz induced a comebacker that started a double play, then slapped his glove in celebration after coaxing a flyout to end the threat.
“He likes being in that moment,” Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker said. “After he got through the second and third inning, I think he got some confidence and really started to get in a groove. He smelled it and got stronger.”
Meanwhile, Asher breezed through seven innings to continue his incredible run of dominance. The Polk State College alum allowed five hits and fanned seven, extending his shutout streak to 31 frames dating back to Aug. 11.
“The last time we faced that pitcher in Myrtle Beach, I think we only got two hits off him,” Johnson said. “We knew he was good. We had to just try to grind it out as much as we could, and we got a dominant performance from Diaz, so we had something to counteract his pitching.”
Ramos and Mookie Betts had two hits apiece for Salem. Madison Younginer earned the win with two scoreless innings of relief.
“Our pitching went out and dominated,” Johnson said. “It would have been a tough loss for our pitchers if we couldn’t have put up a run for them and put up a win. I credit the pitchers today. They won us that game in the end.”