A back and forth ballgame, which featured four ties, seven lead changes, and come-from-behind rallies in the ninth and 11th innings, came to a dramatic close Friday night at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, when Gateway Grizzlies leadoff man Jonathan Johnson jacked a three-run homer in the bottom of the 11th to lead his club to a 9-7 walkoff win over the visiting Evansville Otters.
Nearly every member of the announced crowd of 2,847 fans stuck around for the exciting end, as Evansville scored an unearned run off a Johnson throwing error in the top of the ninth to tie the score at six, then went ahead when another Gateway error on a potential double play ball allowed an Otter runner to score in the top of the 11th.
Grizzlies leading home run hitter Jon Myers led off the Gateway half of the 11th with a single, then moved to second when center fielder Antone DeJesus dropped a successful sacrifice bunt back to Evansville pitcher Christian Kowalchuk.
The next Grizzlie batter flied out, and that brought pinch hitter Alex Guthrie to the plate.
The second-year pro out of Loyola Marymount University in California laced a line-drive single that unfortunately for Gateway, was hit too hard to score Myers from second, but did move the former Saint Louis University star to third, and put the potential game-winning run on base for the next man Johnson.
A 5’9, 170-pounder out of Lakewood, Calif., Johnson had gone 1-for-4 with an RBI groundout in his previous at-bats on Friday, with a drought of nearly a month since his last home run on June 16 against the Normal CornBelters.
But after taking a strike and waving at another, Johnson jumped all over an 0-2 down-and-in pitch, that he was able to crank deep over the wall in right field for a game-winning homer, which set off an absolutely bonkers celebration on the field for all the Grizzlie players.
The overjoyed fans in the stands gave Johnson a standing ovation and a curtain call, before finally deciding to take their celebration to the parking lots and the collective drives home, following what was no doubt one of the most exciting Gateway games of the season.
The jubilant finish was probably a fitting end for a game, which saw Evansville take a first-inning 1-0 lead only to see Gateway answer with a run of its own in the bottom of the first.
The Grizzlies then scored twice in the bottom of the second to go up 3-1, before the Otters answered with three runs in the top of the third to gain a 4-3 edge.
Gateway answered once again, with a run in its half of the third, and another in the fifth to make it 5-4 Grizzlies, before Evansville tied it again in the top of the seventh on a homer by its leadoff man John Schultz.
Gateway’s Chris McClendon banged his second solo homer of the night — giving him five for the season — to put the Grizzlies back on top in the bottom of the seventh at 6-5.
If the score had stayed that way, McClendon would’ve been the easy choice for star of the game, after going 3-for-4 with the two homers, two RBIs, and two runs scored, in a game the Grizzlies needed to wash away the stink of losing three of four in their previous series against the crosstown rival River City Rascals.
McClendon now has a six-game hitting streak, in which he’s gone 13-for-23 (.565 batting average) at the plate, and raised his overall batting average nearly 50 points in just over a week, where it now sits at a Frontier League-leading .341.
Reliever Jason Sullivan (2-0) gave up the go-ahead run in the 11th to Evansville, but still got the win for Gateway, which improved its overall record to 31-18 and moved to 2 1/2 games ahead of second place Schaumburg, which lost on Friday, in the Frontier League West Division standings.
Evansville fell to 26-22 on the year, 3 1/2 games back of first place in the East Division.
Game 2 of this final series before next week’s Frontier League All-Star break, is scheduled for Saturday evening at 7:05 p.m.
Rookie Jake Stephens (0-1) will make his second professional start for the Grizzlies, while Jose Velez will get the start for Evansville.