SUNS: Esch pitches Jacksonville to 6-1 home-opening win over Barons

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Suns right-hander Jake Esch struck out seven batters and allowed a single run in six innings, and shortstop J.T. Riddle hit a three-run home run in a four-run third inning to lift the Suns to a 6-1 win over the Birmingham Barons in front of an Opening Night crowd of 8,367 at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville Thursday night.

In front of the largest crowd to see a Suns home game since July 4, 2014 – when 9,246 attended – the pitcher’s mound was the spotlight. Opening Day ceremonies included ceremonial first pitches by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s son, Boyd Curry, and Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, before Esch (1-0) took center stage.

In a 1-1, third-inning tie, Esch allowed a leadoff single and hit batter. When Barons shortstop Eddy Alvarez attempted to sacrifice both runners into scoring position, Esch fielded the bunt and threw to third base for a force out, then struck out the next two batters to end the inning and finished his outing by recording the next 12 outs in order.

In the tie-breaking bottom of the third inning, Suns center fielder Yefri Perez led off with a single to left field – his second in as many at-bats. Right fielder Jeremias Pineda followed with a single to center field. A fly ball by left fielder Austin Dean moved Perez to third base, and a pickoff throwing error by Barons right-hander Tyler Danish (0-1) scored Perez with the go-ahead run. After designated hitter Moises Sierra drew a two-out walk, Riddle lifted a three-run blast to the right-center field bleachers to make it 5-1.

With the lead, Suns (1-0) pitchers did not allow another baserunner until the ninth inning. Following Esch, right-hander Tyler Higgins struck out two batters in two perfect innings, and right-hander Victor Araujo recorded the staff’s 19th consecutive out before two walks and a game-ending ground ball by first baseman Jake Peter struck baserunner Trey Michalczewski for the final out.

Perez and Pineda each had two hits in their Suns debuts, and the former scored the first run of the season on Dean’s first-inning RBI single. Birmingham (0-1) answered in the second inning with first baseman Jake Peter’s home run.

The Suns continue their opening homestand at 7:05 p.m. Friday, when Suns left-hander Jarlin Garcia opposes Barons right-hander Carson Fulmer. Gates open at 6 p.m.

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