Harrilchak’s three-run double quenches Smokies

Published 11:42 am Tuesday, July 19, 2011

PEARL — The first half of the Southern League season was a ghastly parade of one-run losses and losing streaks for the Mississippi Braves. Even though the second half has been far from flawless, there was a ray of sunshine finally peaking through the gray clouds at Trustmark Park on Monday.

Brett Oberholtzer allowed three hits in a seven-inning complete game, and Cory Harrilchak drove in three runs with a bases-loaded double as the M-Braves beat the Tennessee Smokies 4-1. The victory capped a 4-2 homestand and pulled the Braves’ second-half record to one game under .500 at 12-13. They were 20 games under in the first half.

“We’ve had a good attitude all year. We were 20 games under .500 and 6-20 in one-run games. That makes a difference,” M-Braves manager Rocket Wheeler said. “Our bullpen is starting to come together, which is great. They’re doing what they’ve got to do and that’s going to help us win in the second half.”

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Wheeler cited a host of reasons for the M-Braves’ improvement since the standings were reset on June 23. First baseman Ernesto Mejia has hit .359 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs in June and July. That has helped spark an offense that struggled in the first half to score at least four runs in 18 of 25 games in the second half.

Other players, like Harrilchak, have also contributed big hits. In the second inning Monday, the M-Braves loaded the bases with no outs. After Jordan Kreke tied the game at 1 with a sacrifice fly, a sacrifice bunt and a walk loaded them again for Harrilchak. He pulled a grounder down the first base line for a bases-clearing double that put the M-Braves ahead 4-1.

“Everybody’s chipping in and doing what they’ve got to do,” Wheeler said.

That includes Oberholtzer (7-9), who has been sharp lately.

The lefty’s outing Monday marked the sixth consecutive start in which he has gone at least six innings. He allowed only three hits against the Smokies — one came on a sharply hit grounder off the glove of third baseman Donell Linares and another was a broken bat infield hit in the seventh inning — and didn’t walk anyone. Oberholtzer retired five batters in a row to start the game and 15 of the last 18 he faced. Nelson Perez had two of the Smokies’ three hits, an RBI double to the gap in the second inning and the infield hit in the seventh.

Oberholtzer has earned a victory in each of his last three starts and four of his last five. His ERA in that stretch is 1.85. At one point this season, he went six straight starts without winning.

“For me it was getting acclimated to how the hitters approach you. It’s more of a chess match at this level than at lower levels. The lower levels, you can throw some of your stuff out there and get away with it. Up here, it’s a little different. Mental preparation is a big part of pitching in Double-A,” Oberholtzer said. “Tonight, I had four pitches working and was throwing my cutter a little bit more. I had it going.”

If there’s one problem the M-Braves haven’t solved, it’s how to win in close games. Tennessee pulled out a 2-1 victory in 10 innings earlier Monday in the completion of a game suspended by rain on Sunday. It dropped Mississippi’s record to 10-24 in one-run games and kept them winless in seven extra-inning contests this season.

Wheeler said the records are more statistical anomaly than cause for panic, as well as a valuable lesson for his young players.

“It’s just something you have to go through,” Wheeler said. “You’ve got to get the big hits, get the hits when you’re down. A lot of the one-run games we took the lead and ended up giving it up. It’s no fun when you get walked off on. We need to do some walking off.”