The Daily Register - Harrisburg, IL
  • Miners win first game of championship series

  • The Southern Illinois Miners are two wins away from their first Frontier League title after knocking off the Florence Freedom on the road, 5-3, Wednesday night in the first game of the best-of-five championship series.
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  • Might as well get greedy now.
    The Southern Illinois Miners are two wins away from their first Frontier League title after knocking off the Florence Freedom on the road, 5-3, Wednesday night in the first game of the best-of-five championship series.
    The two teams square off again Thursday night in Florence with the action shifting to Rent One Park this weekend.
    Chris Anderson was responsible for driving in three runs, two with a huge home run in the top of the third inning and later the eventual winning run on a dropped popup by Freedom second baseman Pierre LePage.
    But the win wasn't secure until closer Brandon Cunniff got the final out with the bases loaded in the ninth.
    Florence struck first with Kyle Bluestein cracking a solo homer off Miners starter David Harden in the bottom of the second. But in the next frame, Carlos Mendez singled and Anderson gave the Miners the lead by blasting an Andy Clark fastball over the left-field wall.
    "I was looking for a good pitch to hit and he threw me one and I got through it," Anderson said. "As soon as it hit my bat, I knew I got it good. They went up 1-0 and we had to respond and get some runs. We did that."
    And the very next batter, Cannon Lester, gave the Miners a 3-1 lead with his own home run that just crept over the wall in right-center field.
    "It felt good to finally get an extra-base hit in the playoffs," Lester said. "And to go back-to-back like that with Chris – his went a little farther but I guess it all counts the same. It was a great feeling to start out the series like that."
    Lester's pitches from Clark might have had some added velocity due to what had just happened, the second baseman said.
    "It was the second pitch and on the first pitch he was kind of upset with the one he had just thrown and it was probably the hardest pitch he threw all night," Lester said. "The second pitch I think he tried to do the same thing and he threw it over the middle of the plate and I stayed on it. It felt good."
    But the Freedom didn't go away. They tied the game in the sixth when Drew Rundle bombed a pitch from Harden for a two-run homer.
    "That was a good pitch," said Miners manager Mike Pinto. "It was a sinker down and away and Rundle went down and got it."
    The Miners got the lead back in a strange way in the top of the seventh.
    Jason Ganek led off the frame and reached on an error to bring an end to Clark's outing. Ganek hustled down the line as a throw from third baseman Stephen Cardullo bounced and couldn't be handled by first baseman Rundle.
    Page 2 of 3 - Submarine pitcher Jose Velazquez was brought in and got two quick outs before inducing Anderson's popup to second base, but LePage muffed it and Ganek scored to make it 4-3.
    "With that submariner in there I was looking for a ball up and wound up popping it to second," Anderson said. "Luckily I was getting down the line good enough so that when he dropped it I hit first and we could score. That was a big run in the game."
    Pinto wasn't expecting that type of go-ahead run.
    "I think his feet may have just gotten a little happy in that situation," Pinto said. "That can happen when the ball is spinning away from you. But we got lucky."
    Key insurance was added in the eighth against reliever Brent Choban when Miners shortstop Jake Kaase singled with one out and scored on a two-out double by Ken Gregory.
    Harden was the winning pitcher with 6-2/3 innings in which he scattered seven hits and gave up three runs with six strikeouts and no walks. He also made a handful of nice defensive plays near the mound.
    Miners lefthander Nick Cicio got the final out of the seventh and the first two outs of the eighth. Steven Grife struck out the only batter he faced, Jim Jacquot, to send the game into the ninth.
    That's when Cunniff made things interesting. The righthander walked Bluestein, then struck out pinch-hitters John Malloy and Ryan Skellie. Then David Harris singled and Junior Arrojo drew a walk to load the bases.
    But with one pitch, Cunniff got Peter Fatse, who had two hits earlier in the night, to ground out to Lester at second base to end the game. Cunniff has closed all four of the Miners' postseason victories.
    "He struggled to find the strike zone when he first came in but that's the problem when you have to shut your closer down for a few days," Pinto said. "They need to throw a lot to be sharp. But he made a big pitch when he had to and that's what closers do."
    The Freedom were the Frontier League's hottest team down the stretch of the regular season, winning 20 games in the month of August. They outlasted the Gateway Grizzlies in five games as the Miners were sweeping the postseason's top seed, Traverse City.
    "These guys have had some momentum and that's why we were so worried in that last inning," Pinto said. "If they come back from that, now they believe they can come back from anything. But we were able to shut it down and now we start fresh tomorrow."
    And now owning home field advantage, the Miners hold the upper hand in the series. Getting the first win was enormous.
    Page 3 of 3 - "It's big, especially on the road," Lester said. "If we had blown it there at the end, it would've been a tough one to swallow. But getting that first one here, especially here, it kind of puts them on their heels now."
    Thursday's game begins at 5:35 p.m. Central time.
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