Keys shines in start for Dragons

JC Keys stepped into the starting role Thursday for the Dragons and pitched five scoreless innings and allowed two hits and three walks to Lake County. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED
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JC Keys stepped into the starting role Thursday for the Dragons and pitched five scoreless innings and allowed two hits and three walks to Lake County. Jeff Gilbert/CONTRIBUTED

When the Reds traded Dayton starting pitcher Noah Davis on Wednesday, the Dragons had to pick a reliever to start Thursday night’s game.

JC Keys made sense because he started 13 games in college, three games in rookie ball in 2019 and one for the Dragons on July 4. Keys was the perfect choice.

Keys threw five scoreless innings to set the tone for a 4-1 Dragons victory, a second straight over the Captains. Keys allowed two hits, walked three and struck out four.

“JC did a tremendous job tonight,” Dragons catcher James Free said. “He gave us a real good chance to win.”

Dragons manager Jose Moreno said the hope was to get three, maybe four innings from Keys. But Keys recovered from two walks in a rocky first inning and made it through five on 63 pitches.

“A real good outing for us and helping the bullpen not use too many guys,” Moreno said. “He struggled a little bit in the first, but he made the adjustments, and he was able to control any situation.”

Keys got the news after Wednesday’s game that he would start.

“Just being able to have the confidence to know that they trust in you to put you in that situation,” Keys said. “Each opportunity I don’t take for granted and try to do my best.”

Free said Keys was at ease and confident preparing for the game.

“He looked good in the pen,” Free said. “We talked about what our game plan was for all the hitters, and we just stuck to it.”

Lake County thrives on fastballs, but Keys mixed a lot of breaking pitches with his low-90s fastball to get ahead in counts.

“We tried to mix it up a lot,” Free said. “We knew that they were a really good fastball-hitting team, and he has a really good curveball and we used that.”

The Dragons gave Keys an early lead with single runs in the second and third innings and two in the fourth. None of the runs scored on hits and only two of them were RBIs.

“Hitting is very difficult and we have to be able to score runs when we don’t hit,” Moreno said. “Situational hitting was good, and that was winning baseball by Miggy Hernandez.”

Miguel Hernandez got two runs home by making contact and running the bases aggressively. In the second inning with runners and second and third and no outs, he grounded out to the second baseman to plate Victor Ruiz, who had reached on an error.

Free led off the fourth with his second double and fourth in two games. Hernandez singled and Free stopped at third. But on the throw home, Hernandez took off for second. A throwing error allowed Free to score.

The other runs scored in the second when Garrett Wolforth grounded into a double play and in the fourth when Quin Cotton hit a sacrifice fly to score Hernandez.

Playoff chase: The Dragons (41-33) moved back into first place in the High A Central League East Division and within a half-game of the second and final playoff spot. Great Lakes (41-34) lost to slip behind the Dragons. Cedar Rapids (42-33) of the West Division lost and leads the Dragons by a half-game.

The top two teams regardless of division will meet in a best-of-five championship series.

Urbaez watch: Dragons second baseman Francisco Urbaez has been one of the most consistent hitters in professional baseball since May 29. Entering Thursday’s game, he was hitting .364 over his last 47 games. He was second in the HACL in on-base percentage at .434 and batting average at .342 and fifth in OPS at .914. He was 1-for-3 Thursday and extended his on-base streak to 35 games.