NORMAL — A game two loss Wednesday at the Corn Crib wasn't going to ruin Normal manager Billy Horn’s 39th birthday.
Yet the candles on the cake would have burned a bit brighter if the CornBelters could have avoided a 5-4 loss to Southern Illinois after winning the opener, 7-4.
“It would have been much better,” Horn said. “But it is what it is.”
Normal (14-19) and Southern Illinois (18-15) will play another doubleheader Thursday at the Corn Crib with the opener starting at 5:05 p.m.
Belters shortstop Santiago Chirino had three hits Wednesday to pull within three of tying the Frontier League career hits record and delivered a key blow in game one.
Chirino’s two-out single in the fifth drove home Chris Iriart and Justin Fletcher to give Normal a 4-3 lead. The rally produced three more runs as Derrick Loveless, Andrew Godbold, Tanner Lubach and Joel Davis followed with singles.
“As Chi Chi goes, we go,” Godbold said of Chirino. “He’s a very intense, great leader. When he does well, the rest of the guys want to follow him.”
Godbold handed the Belters a 2-0 lead in the first when he smashed a home run to right-center field with Fletcher aboard.
“It took 100 at-bats, but I finally feel locked in now,” said Godbold. “I’ve been working a lot with Pasky (hitting coach Pascual Santiago). With my struggles early, I still had some success. It’s just finally coming together.”
Normal starter Kevin Matthews allowed three runs over the first four innings. Reliever Trevor Simms was credited with the win after striking out the side in the fifth. Jonathan De Marte worked a scoreless sixth and Anthony Herrera gave up one run in the seventh.
Chance Shepard belted his league-leading 11th home run for Southern Illinois in the third, a solo shot.
The nightcap was scoreless until the fourth. The Miners parlayed a throwing error by first baseman Iriart into three unearned runs against Normal starter Jack Landwehr.
Harrison Bragg’s two-run homer to the berm in left field came after a Romeo Cortina sacrifice fly.
Normal took two runs back in the fifth. Sammy Vega reached on an error and Fletcher singled before Chirino beat out an infield hit. The wayward throw hit Chirino and rolled away, allowing Vega and Fletcher to cross the plate.
The Belters forged ahead 4-3 in the sixth as Godbold singled and scored on a Cody Erickson single. Tony Holton legged out a bunt single and brought home another run on a wild pitch.
The Miners tied it in the seventh when closer Kuehl McEachern walked Luis Jean on four pitches, and Jean scored when catcher Erickson threw away Joe Duncan’s sacrifice bunt attempt.
Chirino singled and Loveless walked to extend his on base streak to 33 straight games in the bottom of the seventh. But Godbold struck out and Chirino was doubled off second on a Lubach line out.
“We just keep finding ways to give ballgames away. We had them beat and didn’t put our foot down on their throat,” Horn said. “First and second nobody out, and we can’t get the job done.”
Nolan Earley blasted a hanging full-count pitch from George Faue for the go-ahead home run with one out in the eighth.
“Once again, our lefties on lefties have been abysmal,” lamented Horn. “Our lefties cannot get left-handed hitters out. It’s been like that all year. It’s very frustrating. You’re not going to see that much longer, not with this club.”
Kurt Heyer, the scheduled starter in the opener of Tuesday’s rained-out twin bill, surrendered two earned runs in 5⅓ innings. Reliever Michael Starcevich was the winner.
Landwehr was charged with three unearned runs in five innings, striking out two and walking two.