It didn't take long for Luis Perez and the GreenJackets to discover why the Columbus RedStixx are off to the best start in the South Atlantic League.
The first-place RedStixx jumped on Perez early and got six no-hit innings from starter Brandon Matheny in a 7-3 win Monday. The victory was Columbus' seventh straight and 10th in its past 11 games, extending its lead in the Southern Division standings to four games over the second-place Jackets.
"They've got an awfully good ballclub," Jackets manager Mike Boulanger said. "You look at Columbus, and I don't think it's any secret why they're in first place. Right now in our division, they look like the club to beat."
The game got away from the Jackets quickly when Perez, who entered the game sixth in the SAL with a 0.98 ERA and a streak of 17 consecutive shutout innings, struggled with his command from the outset.
Columbus leadoff man Alex Requena - who led the SAL with 87 stolen bases for the RedStixx last season and is with the Stixx on a rehab assignment before heading to high-Class A Kinston - led off the first inning with walk. He then stole second and third, and scored two batters later on a sacrifice fly by Jeff Becker to make it 1-0.
The Jackets fell behind 3-0 when Eric Crozier ripped an RBI-triple and scored on an error by second baseman Raul Nieves. Columbus blew it open with a four-run fifth inning, highlighted by a two-run double by Becker and a mammoth two-run home run by Ryan Church off Perez.
For Perez (3-1), the damage added up to his worst outing in five starts this season. The 20-year-old left-hander was charged with six earned runs on five hits, and he suffered his first loss this season. His ERA ballooned to 3.13.
"It was one of those games that seemed like nothing was right," Boulanger said. "The tempo, the rhythm, the feel, the pulse of the game didn't feel good."
The opposite was true for Matheny, who had little trouble keeping the struggling Augusta bats in check. The Jackets scored an unearned run in the first inning, aided by a pair of errors by shortstop Hector Luna, but that was all they could muster against the 22-year-old left-hander.
A 17th-round pick by Cleveland last year, Matheny struck out six batters and walked only one through six innings, but was removed after reaching his pitch limit. In two starts this season, Matheny (1-0) has not allowed a run and has given up just three hits in 13 innings.
"They got good pitching out there tonight, and (Matheny) just went out and threw strikes," said Nieves, who went 2-for-4 to extend his hitting streak to five games. "They're a pretty good club, but I think we're just as good. We've got to take care of business tomorrow and the next day. The next two games are important. We've got to be ready against them."
Columbus' bid for a combined no-hitter was quickly broken up when reliever Donnie Suttles gave up a single to the first batter he faced, Jackets designated hitter Matt Cooper, in the seventh. But the Jackets never seriously threatened and managed only five hits.
"For me, and I hope for the players, they look at the next two games as a test," Boulanger said. "It's a chance for us to see if we can pick up our game now. We'd better if we're going to play with those guys."
RedStixx 7, GreenJackets 3
Player of the game: Columbus starter Brandon Matheny threw six no-hit innings but was removed after reaching his pitch limit. The Jackets scored a run in the first inning off Matheny, but it was unearned.
Turning point: The RedStixx blew open a close game with a four-run fifth inning against Jackets starter Luis Perez, highlighted by a two-run home run by Ryan Church.
Today's game: RedStixx (19-6) vs. GreenJackets (15-10), 7:15 p.m., Lake Olmstead Stadium.
Probable starters: Columbus - RHP Matt Wade (1-1, 3.38); Augusta - LHP Richard Rundles (2-2, 1.80).
Promotion: Two for Tuesday (two beers for the price of one) and Team Trivia.
Reach Rob Mueller at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.