By GREG MENGELT
The Louisville Bats almost blew Tony Cingrani’s near-perfect start, but Felix Perez blasted a ninth-inning walkoff home run to give the Bats a 4-3 win over Toledo on Opening Day.
The exuberant 28-year-old designated hitter led off the ninth and blasted a shot deep over the right-field wall.
The Cuban left-handed batter rounded the bases with his fist held high and tossed his helmet in the air, while running from third base to home plate. He then flexed his muscles for Bats’ fans after being mobbed by his teammates at home plate.
“He’s an excitable guy,” first-year Louisville manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s got a lot of talent. We’re hoping to smooth out some edges on him, and hopefully he can go and help out Cincinnati sooner or later. He’s a good player.”
While most eyes were on the Reds’ No. 1 prospect, speedster Billy Hamilton, Cingrani stole the show from the opening inning.
In the top of the first, Cingrani struck out all three Mud Hens. He did the same in the second and the first batter of the third before Toledo’s No. 8 batter, Bryan Holaday, became the first Mud Hen to put the ball in play with a fly out to right field.
Cingrani — the Reds’ top pitching prospect — struck out 13 of the first 15 batters he faced and was perfect through five innings.
“I would never expect or ask that,” Riggleman said of Cingrani’s performance. “It was really just an amazing performance. I managed Tony last year a couple months [at Double-A] Pensacola and we saw some really well-pitched games in Double-A, but that’s as good as I’ve seen.”
Cingrani walked Jordan Lennerton to open the sixth. It was the only baserunner he allowed. He retired the following three batters in order before giving way to reliever Justin Freeman after six innings of work.
“[The perfect game] ran through my mind, but I just had to go out there and keep throwing,” Cingrani said.
Cingrani struck out 14.
“I felt strong,” he said. “It was Opening Day, so I was a little amped up out there.”
“A lot of his pitches were hitting good spots tonight,” Riggleman said. “[His pitches] were tough to pick up. The threat of his breaking ball I thought helped him a lot. He threw the ball well.”
Three Bats pitchers combined to strike out 19.
“That was about as good a pitched ballgame as I’ve seen in a long time,” said Riggleman, who has managed in the majors with the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals. “I can’t say enough about how we pitched and also [starter] Shawn Hill pitched a great ballgame for them.”
The Bats took a 1-0 lead in the second when a Henry Rodriguez double was followed by a Dennis Phipps RBI single.
Minor league legend and longtime Mud Hen Mike Hessman made it 2-0 in the fourth and 3-0 in the seventh with his 365th and 366th career minor league home runs.
“You feel real good for him when he succeeds like that,” Riggleman said of the 35-year-old. “He’s such a class act. I had never really seen him in person. But it was interesting to see him tonight, I’ll tell you.”
“He’s a legend,” Cingrani said. “He’s been doing that a long time. It’s pretty awesome watching him hit.”
Former Bat Danny Dorn snapped the Cingrani-Freeman no-hit bid with a single in the eighth. But Freeman got Danny Worth to ground into a double play before striking out Lennerton to preserve a 3-0 lead after eight innings.
Louisville closer Kevin Whelan, who picked up the victory, had control issues early in the ninth. But he served up the apparent game-winning double play, but shortstop Jason Donald dropped second baseman Kristopher Negron’s toss, opening the door for Toledo.
Dorn then came through with a game-tying single to send the game into the bottom of the ninth.
“They put together a heck of a rally,” Riggleman said. “We had the one error and that opened the door up for them a little bit. Then Perez hit a big one. We came out on top when it looked like it might get away from us.”
Hamilton, who stole a professional baseball-record 147 bases at Single-A Bakersfield and Pensacola last season, went 1-for-4 with a double and his first stolen base in the first inning. He was stranded at third.