New Orleans Zephyrs left-hander John Halama finally crossed paths with the Buffalo Bisons Monday night. The Herd got a first-hand look at how he has baffled the American Association and Pacific Coast League the last two years.
Halama tossed a four-hitter as New Orleans clubbed Buffalo, 7-2, in Game One of the inaugural Triple-A World Series before an announced crowd of 4,142 at Cashman Field.
The best-of-five series against the Houston affiliate continues tonight at 11 (ESPN2, Radio 1520) with Buffalo lefty Mike Matthews (0-0, 4.50 in the postseason but 9-6, 4.63 in the regular season) meeting New Orleans lefty Derek Root (1-0, 2.84 in playoffs).
The teams take Wednesday off before staging Game Three Thursday at 3:30. The Bisons will be the home team tonight and in Game Four, if necessary, Friday night.
Halama got all the offensive help he needed from Zephyrs first baseman Daryle Ward, who torched Herd starter Jason Rakers for a pair of two-run homers. Rakers gave up six runs in 4 1/3 innings as he saw his six-game winning streak broken.
Halama went 13-3 with a 2.25 earned-run average last season and was the left-hander on the Association all-star team. But in 18 regular-season meetings between Buffalo and New Orleans, Halama never made an appearance. He was 12-3, 3.20 this year and widely believed to be the player to be named later in Houston's trade with Seattle for Randy Johnson.
Halama downplayed finally meeting the Bisons largely because the historic nature of the game had him very nervous. After struggling in warm-ups, he was even concerned he wouldn't last more than four innings. Going the route was beyond the realm of possibility.
"To have only one hit through six innings was amazing because they were hitting the ball hard," Halama said. "This is for the championship of Triple-A and I couldn't really shake it (the nervousness) at all until about the second inning."
Halama's wicked curveballs had Buffalo hitters flailing all night as he struck out nine and walked two. He allowed just one hit over the first six innings, a fourth-inning single by Jeff Manto, and retired 18 of the 20 hitters he faced.
"That was such a good job," said Buffalo manager Jeff Datz. "With our offense, when the heck was the last time somebody did that?"
"I had to try to keep them off my fastball," Halama said. "Hopefully (using the off-speed pitches) would open things up for me later in the count."
Rakers said he felt the same big-game jitters.
"I was shaking in the first inning," he said. "It just felt funny going against a team and hitters I hadn't seen before. You really didn't know what to expect. I faced Ward before in (Arizona) Fall League and he's a good hitter. I don't think I got him out there either."
Halama didn't allow a run until third baseman Russell Branyan's two-out, two-run homer to right in the seventh. It was the first Triple-A game of the season for Branyan, who played for Buffalo in last year's Association playoffs and has 95 home runs while playing Class A and Double-A ball the last three season in the Cleveland chain.
From the Bisons' perspective, it's a good bet they were thankful this nationally televised dud didn't start until 11:10 p.m. Eastern time. Any Western New York TV sets tuned in probably clicked off when the Zephyrs broke the game open with a five-run fifth inning that made it 7-0. It was highlighted by Ward's second home run of the night, a towering blast to right.
"I tried to come in and tie him up on his hands and it kind of leaked back out over the plate," Rakers said. "I have to tip my hat to him. I didn't have my best stuff and he hit me well. The guy was locked in."
The Zephyrs knocked out Rakers after Chris Truby's walk and Lance Berkman's single. Jim Brower, in his first Buffalo appearance, gave up Marc Ronan's two-run single and Carlos Hernandez's RBI single off the glove of a leaping Jolbert Cabrera at short.
Ward, who hit .305 with 23 homers and a team-high 96 RBIs during the regular season, has gone absolutely berserk in the playoffs. He hit three homers and drove in five runs in the Zephyrs' five-game victory over Calgary in the PCL championship series and is 17 for 38 in the postseason with six homers and 13 RBIs in nine games.
Rakers had given up just one earned run in 14 innings over his two postseason starts, but the Zephyrs quickly got to him in the first on Ward's opposite-field bolt over the 364-foot sign in left field.
"I didn't think Rakers seemed nervous," Datz said. "He just got frustrated and made a few bad pitches. He's thrown the ball great the last two months. It's unfortunate he didn't pick us up here tonight."