By Jerry Briggs
Special to The JB Replay
The San Antonio Missions escaped with a wild 12-11 victory in 10 innings Tuesday night to take a 1-0 lead on the Amarillo Sod Poodles in a best-of-three, first-round series in the Texas League playoffs.
Both teams hit five home runs in the opener of a South Division series that will continue with Game 2 on Thursday night at Wolff Stadium in San Antonio. A third game, if necessary, would be played Friday night at Wolff.
The winner of the series will advance to the TL championship round, which is scheduled to open on Sunday in the home park of the North Division winner.
Arkansas has the upper hand in the North after winning the opener in the other TL semifinal. The Travelers downed the Springfield Cardinals 3-1 on a rainy night in Springfield. The series now shifts to North Little Rock, Ark., where Arkansas can clinch with a victory in Game 2 on Thursday.
Playing in Amarillo in Game 1 of a series between TL South rivals, the Missions needed a fast start, and they got it, surging into leads of 5-0 and 6-1.
But in a game that evolved into an epic struggle, with the Sod Poodles rallying to tie the score 7-7 after the regulation nine innings, both teams saved the best for last.
In the top of the 10th, the Missions erupted for five runs, capped by a three-run homer from Marcos Castanon. Not to be outdone, the Sod Poodles scored four in the bottom half. Caleb Roberts’ second homer of the game, a three-run shot off Daniel Camarena, rallied the Soddies to within the eventual final score.
The game finally ended when Amarillo star A.J. Vukovich flied out to Korry Howell in right field.
For the Missions, 22-year-old Nathan Martorella hit two, two-run home runs, one in the first inning and another in the third, to lead the early surge. San Antonio’s other homers came from 21-year-old Homer Bush, Jr., and also from Cole Cummings and Castanon.
Despite the onslaught by the first-half South Division champions, the Sod Poodles, who won the second-half title, never seemed to be out of contention.
Roberts, a 23-year-old from West Palm Beach, Fla., led the way with two home runs on the night to highlight his three-hit, five RBI attack. Additionally, former Stanford University star Tim Tawa, Kristian Robinson and Seth Beer added one homer apiece.
After the Missions scored once in the eighth on a Sod Poodles throwing error to take a 7-6 lead, the home team tied it in dramatic fashion, with Beer slugging a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth.
The Missions used six pitchers, with 19-year-old Robby Snelling getting the start and working four innings. He yielded three runs on seven hits.
Lake Bachar, the fourth Missions hurler, proved to be effective with two scoreless innings. He held the Sod Poodles to two hits over the seventh and the eighth. Team saves leader Efrain Contreras pitched all of the ninth and part of the 10th to earn the victory. After giving up Roberts’ blast, Camarena hung on at the end to get the last out.
In all, the Sod Poodles’ offense lashed 17 hits against Missions pitching. Missions hitters did some serious damage themselves, collecting 14 hits. Starter Dylan Ray took the brunt of it, yielding six runs on eight hits in 3 and 2/3 innings. Forced to go to the bullpen time and again after that, Amarillo used six pitchers to try and stay in it.
Reliever Raffi Vizcaino worked the ninth inning and part of the 10th, yielding five runs, including four of them earned, to take the loss.
A defensive gem for the Missions came in the seventh inning. With the game tied 6-6, Amarillo’s Jancarlos Cintron lined a single to right field. Cole Cummings fielded it and fired to Castanon, the second baseman. Castanon promptly fired home, where catcher Michael De La Cruz applied the tag on Robinson for the third out. To begin the play, Robinson was on first base. Though he got a fast start on a hit-and-run ploy, the Missions foiled it with two strong throws.
Last season, the Missions were swept out of the first round of the playoffs in two games by the eventual league champion Frisco RoughRiders. They dropped the first game 7-3 in Frisco and came home to lose, 5-2. It was their first trip to the postseason since 2018. In ’18, they beat Corpus Christi three games to two in the first round, only to lose three games to none to the Tulsa Drillers in the finals.
The Missions won their last league pennant 10 years ago.
In 2013, the Missions swept to the TL title behind manager Rich Dauer. They were led on the field by pitchers Keyvius Sampson, Matt Andriese and Matt Wisler. In the first round, they eliminated Corpus Christi three games to two. In the finals, they beat Arkansas by the same count. Journeyman Johan Limonta, who started the season playing in an independent league in Pennsylvania, hit a grand slam in the championship series clincher at Arkansas. His fourth-inning blow was the difference in a 5-0 victory.
North Division highlights
Prelander Berroa struck out the final two hitters of the night to nail down a 3-1 victory for the visiting Travelers. The final strikeout came with the two runners in scoring position. A single to the outfield could have tied the game, but Berroa fanned Cardinals leadoff man Victor Scott II to end the game.