LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Lexington Legends jumped on Charleston Dirty Birds starter Joe Testa for three runs in the first three innings and held on for a 6-5 win Tuesday night, squaring the Atlantic League South Division playoff series at one game apiece at Lexington Legends Ballpark.
That sets up a winner-take-all third game in the best-of-three series here at 6:31 p.m. Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the Atlantic League championship series, which begins Friday night.
Dirty Birds manager Mark Minicozzi, still quarantined at home after getting a positive test for COVID-19, said Arik Sikula would start Wednesday’s deciding game for Charleston, and expected Lexington to go with Zac Westcott in a battle of right-handers.
One night after Charleston and Lexington managed to score just five runs in a 13-inning marathon that the Dirty Birds won 3-2 Monday, Charleston and Lexington eclipsed that scoring total in the first inning on Tuesday.
Charleston, perhaps riding the momentum of its opening-game win, scored four runs in the top of the first on two home runs, a solo shot by Jimmy Paredes and a three-run blast by Olmo Rosario.
Lexington answered right back in the bottom of the first on a two-run homer by Brandon Phillips, then tied it up at 4-all in the second inning on a solo home run by Roberto Baldoquin and an RBI single by Tillman Pugh.
Charleston reclaimed the advantage in the top of the third when Rosario hit his second home run of the night to give the Dirty Birds a 5-4 lead, but a two-run shot by Lexington’s Denis Phipps put the Legends back on top 6-5 in the bottom of the third.
The teams combined for more home runs in the first three innings — six — than they had total runs on Monday.
Then, just as suddenly, the scoring stopped.
Testa, who allowed six runs on eight hits, was removed after three innings and replaced by Dakota Freese, the winning pitcher in Monday’s thriller. Freese pitched four shutout innings, allowing just one hit and one walk.
Edwin Quirarte, who pitched two shutout innings Monday, threw another one in the eighth inning Tuesday. Through the first two playoff games, Charleston’s bullpen has not allowed an earned run in 12 innings against a team that averaged more than seven runs per game in the regular season.
“Our bullpen has been absolutely amazing,” Minicozzi said in a postgame phone interview. “What they’ve done is even more impressive with that lineup they’re facing. They’ve stepped up and given us a chance.”
The Lexington bullpen was similarly effective Tuesday night. All five Charleston runs came off Legends starter J.J. Hoover, who allowed 11 hits, including three home runs, in his five-inning stint.
But three Lexington relievers shut down the Dirty Birds over the final four innings to preserve the win and keep the Legends’ season alive. Shawn Blackwell pitched two hitless innings, Derek Self had a scoreless eighth and Austin Adams picked up the save by keeping Charleston off the board in the ninth.
There was some drama in the final frame, though. After retiring the first two batters, Adams yielded singles to Teodoro Martinez and Paredes before getting Edwin Espinal on a popup to first base for the final out.
“We had our opportunities,” Minicozzi said.
One of Charleston’s missed opportunities came in the top of the fourth, after Rosario’s second homer had given the Dirty Birds their 5-4 lead.
Rymer Liriano had a one-out single but was thrown out at home, trying to score from first base on Elmer Reyes’ double to left-center. Lexington left fielder Courtney Hawkins fielded the ball and relayed it to second baseman Phillips, who fired home to catcher Jose Briceno in plenty of time to tag out Liriano.
Phillips, the 40-year-old former Cincinnati Reds standout, made another stellar defensive play in the top of the sixth, ranging behind second base to make a diving catch to rob Kelly of a base hit. Phillips was injured on the play but stayed in and finished the game.
Game two was completed in a swift 2 hours and 35 minutes, a far cry from the 4:25 it took to complete Monday’s game.
Sikula, 11-7 during the regular season, has been Charleston’s top starter, leading the team in wins, ERA (4.35) and strikeouts (103). The former pitcher for Hurricane and South Charleston high schools and Marshall University was named the Dirty Birds’ Pitcher of the Year by the team before the start of the playoffs.
Westcott, a late-season addition to the Lexington roster, is coming off a regular season in which he went 1-2 with a 4.70 ERA in five starts.
The announced crowd for at Legends Ballpark was 5,144.
MEANWHILE, UP NORTH: The North Division series also had a deciding third game Wednesday after the Long Island Ducks stayed alive with a 7-0 win over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs Tuesday night in Waldorf, Maryland.
Long Island starter Scott Harkin got the win with seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and no walks while striking out six. Steve Lombardozzi and Chris Shaw each drove in two runs for the Ducks and Deibinson Romero scored four runs.
The North Division winner will host the first two games of the championship series Friday and Saturday, with the remainder of the best-of-five showdown scheduled for Monday and (if necessary) Tuesday and Wednesday at the home of the South Division winner.
Whether or not that means more postseason baseball at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park was to be decided Wednesday.