There are some games in which minor-league baseball serves a reminder that it is, well, minor league.
Tonight's 8-2 TinCaps win over the Dayton Dragons at Parkview Field was one such game. Somewhere between Fort Wayne starting an emergency catcher, the Dragons walking four hitters in a row and the TinCaps having a pitcher deemed ineligible to work because he was not on the "available relievers" list, this game jumped the shark in a big way.
Still, Fort Wayne won it, refusing to give in when the Dragon pitchers couldn't find the plate and instead drawing eight walks and getting hit by a pitch twice. The TinCaps weathered a green catcher behind the plate, a defensive adjustment after their leadoff hitter left the game with a finger injury and the aforementioned pitching mishap – Fred Schlichtholz hustled in cold from the bullpen to replace Connor Lehmann and threw a 1-2-3 inning after hurriedly warming up, getting the victory for his trouble – to win for the sixth time in eight games and give themselves a chance Sunday to win their first home series since the opening set of the season against West Michigan. Since then, Fort Wayne has split six series at Parkview Field and lost one. It has not won four games in a home series this season (the season-opening set ended 3-2 with one rainout).
Hitting coach Jonathan Mathews, filling in for manager Anthony Contreras for the fifth straight game, called it the most proud he's ever been of a group of professionals. He noted that, after leadoff hitter Grant Little went down with a jammed finger in the first inning, players were coming up to him offering to play in different spots if that was what the team needed.
"Sometimes, younger kids you'll see stuff like that, but in professional baseball, you don't see that all the time," Mathews said. "So it was kind of neat."
That mentality took hold before the game, when catcher Adam Kerner was scratched because of a sore shoulder. With injury and roster moves leaving Fort Wayne without a second catcher, Zack Mathis was pressed into duty. Mathis had done some catching in spring training this season, but he had never caught an official pro game before.
"I didn't really think it was true," Mathis said of his reaction when he got the news. "I was like, 'Oh no, Kerner's good, he'll be fine.' Then Kerner came up to me and said, 'Nope, I can't catch today' and I said, 'Man, I guess I gotta do it.' I was rattled, I'm gonna be honest. But then I just said, 'You know what? You just have to do it. You've done it before, you'll be good.'"
Mathis was indeed fine. He caught four excellent innings (notwithstanding a walk, a single and a wild pitch in the first inning) from Noel Vela, who struck out seven, including five in a row at one point, and gave up only one hit. The backstop then guided a quartet of relievers to five innings of one-run ball to seal the win.
Meanwhile, the TinCaps' offense put together another very good night at the plate, with plenty of help from the Dragon pitching staff, which struggled to find the strike zone (or even the catcher's glove at times). Starter Bryce Bonnin walked the first four hitters in Fort Wayne's four-run third inning and five in his 2 2/3-inning start; the TinCaps then drew two more walks in the fourth and were also hit by pitches twice for the third time in the series. Dayton also threw two wild pitches and had a passed ball, while Fort Wayne had three wild pitches. The key for the TinCaps was not to let the Dragons off the hook for their wildness.
"We preach it a lot, 'Get good pitches to hit,'" Mathews said. "Our guys are ready to hit, but if it's not a pitch that's in the strike zone that they want to hit, then it's a (take). They did an unbelievable job of that tonight and did damage on the pitches they could hit. It was all around a really good offensive performance from our guys."
Among the top performers on offense were Justin Lopez (a two-run homer, his eighth of the season, a double and three RBI), Luis Almanzar (a triple and a single) and Mathis (a double, RBI, walk and HBP).
The Fort Wayne lineup could look very different Sunday as the TinCaps welcome three top prospects from Low-A Lake Elsinore who got promoted today: outfielder Robert Hassell III, catcher Brandon Valenzuela and infielder Euribiel Angeles. They didn't make it to Fort Wayne in time for tonight's game, but they'll be in town Sunday and at least one or two of them should be in the lineup, especially with Fort Wayne somewhat banged up.
"Even tonight, the bodies would have been nice," Mathews said of the newcomers. "And they're good players to boot, so that's exciting, we're excited about getting them. They're going to help us out instantly. ... We've seen all the guys in spring training and we know what good players they are."
Notes: Little left the game after playing in left in the second inning because he could not grip the bat with his jammed finger. That's the second time he's had the same issue this season. Mathews said he thinks it's a "minor thing," but the finger swelled up pretty quickly. It seems unlikely Little, who owns a 13-game on-base streak, will be in the lineup Sunday. ... Padres reliever Trey Wingenter, who is scheduled to make a minor-league rehab appearance with Fort Wayne this week as he returns from Tommy John surgery, did not pitch tonight. Mathews said it is still unclear whether Wingenter will pitch Sunday.