In the first game of their doubleheader against Lansing tonight, the TinCaps got off to a promising start offensively, getting an RBI single from Tirso Ornelas and a pair of sacrifice flies to score three runs.
For the next 12 innings, all the way through to the seventh and final frame of the second game, Fort Wayne yearned for a big hit that never came. In eight of those 12 innings, the TinCaps put runners in scoring position, but in none of them were they able to push a run across.
That finally changed in the seventh inning of the second game. Fort Wayne trailed by a run entering the bottom of the seventh and, after losing the first contest 7-3, was on the verge of getting swept to open the final home series of the season. Indeed, it looked as though that would be the case when back-to-back bases-loaded ground balls failed to produce a run and left the TinCaps one out from defeat with Kelvin Alarcon coming to the plate.
Instead, Alarcon provided the hit that had eluded Fort Wayne all night. He bounced a single back up the middle, easily scoring Ripken Reyes from third. Shortstop Brett Harris gloved the ball on a dead sprint and instinctively threw to the plate without stopping to look. The heave, without much on it because Harris was falling away from the infield, was cut off near the mound by first baseman Lawrence Butler, who then fired it home. It looked like Jonny Homza, streaking in from third, might be cut down and send the game to extras, but Homza slid feet-first to the outside of the plate and got in just ahead of the tag, giving Fort Wayne a 2-1 win and setting off a walk-off celebration between first and second base.
The winning play – the entire final inning, really – was one of the most exciting moments at Parkview Field this season. It felt as though the TinCaps unleashed all of the pent-up frustration from being unable to come up with a big hit most of the night in that celebration after the second contest. It's significantly easier to abide going 3 for 23 with runners in scoring position during a doubleheader if you somehow win one of the two games, especially if you can end on a high note like the TinCaps did tonight.
It was actually a pretty good night for the TinCaps at the plate, all things considered. There have to be runners on base in order for a team to have that many opportunities with runners in scoring position and Fort Wayne did have plenty of traffic on the bases tonight. The main takeaway from the team's hitting performance is that the kids continue to be alright. Robert Hassell III, Brandon Valenzuela and Euribiel Angeles, all younger than 21 and all playing in just their second and third games at Parkview Field, combined to go 6 for 16 with a double, three walks, two hit-by-pitches (both of Angeles, who was none to happy after the second one), a run, an RBI and a stolen base. All told, that's a .524 OBP. Not bad for three players who can't legally celebrate this win with a beer.
In addition, the pitching had a good night, outside of a second straight rough performance for right-hander Connor Lehmann, who gave up all seven runs (six earned) in the first game. Lehmann has a 13.50 ERA in his last two starts, after giving up just one run in 11 innings in his previous three appearances. His fastball doesn't appear to be quite as hard as it was before and he isn't getting nearly as many swing and misses with his curveball, which was very good for a few starts.
Outside of Lehmann, however, the TinCaps were dominant on the mound. Edwuin Bencomo retired the first seven hitters he faced in relief of Lehmann and pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Felix Minjarez, starting the second game, pitched three good innings and made one mistake, a home run to leadoff hitter Shane Selman in the first. Austin Smith pitched two terrific innings, retiring all six hitters he faced and Kevin Kopps earned his first pro win with a scoreless seventh in the second contest, his seventh straight scoreless appearance to start his Fort Wayne tenure. The TinCaps continue to have the best ERA among the 30 teams in High-A since July 7.
The victory in the second game means Fort Wayne's goals for the week are still in front of it. It can still grab a home series win for the first time since May and it can still pull ahead of Lansing and out of the cellar in the High-A Central East Division. Getting swept tonight would have made it necessary for Fort Wayne to win the final four games of the series to achieve all of that. Maybe if the TinCaps are going to win three more games (or four) and take the series, they can pile up some runs early and not need to come from behind late. But where would the fun be in that?
Note: The TinCaps will start Gabe Mosser in Thursday's contest, with Gabe Morales as a piggyback starter. Mosser is working his way back from an injury that cost him a month of the season and has not pitched more than three innings since his return in mid-August. He was originally scheduled to pitch tonight, but the TinCaps went with Minjarez instead. The decision to start Mosser on Thursday shakes up the rotation, moving Thursday's originally-scheduled starter, Noel Vela, to Saturday. Danny Denz will still start Friday and Lehmann will get a chance to bounce back Sunday.