Another season at Parkview Field is in the books.
The TinCaps won't be a playoff team in 2021 (only two of the 12 teams in High-A Central will reach the abbreviated postseason this year), but they ended their home schedule on a high note this afternoon, beating the Lansing Lugnuts 7-1 behind home runs from Luis Almanzar, Victor Duarte and Tirso Ornelas. The win tied Fort Wayne with Lansing in the race to avoid the cellar in the High-A Central East Division and set the team's final home record for the shortened campaign at 28-32.
The TinCaps still have six games remaining in the regular season and they have not slumped late in the year. In fact, they've pounded 31 hits over the last two games and their pitchers have struck out double-digit hitters in three straight contests. Manager Anthony Contreras said in late August he wants his team to drive through the end of the season and he is getting his wish.
"Of late, these guys have done a good job of keeping their focus, regardless of where we're at in the season," Contreras said. "It's natural for everybody, staff, employees, players to see the finish line and keep the grind going. It's nice to see these last couple of games, they turn it on, swing it good at the plate, get good pitching performances and play good (defense). That's what it's about, these guys continuing to push forward."
One player who is having a brilliant end to his season is Ornelas, who put on a show for the fans Sunday, going for 4 for 5 and coming up a triple short of the cycle. He hit his seventh home run in the fifth inning and also added to his league lead with his 31st double. The outfielder has a hit in 11 straight starts and is hitting .413 with a .492 OBP and .620 slugging percentage over the last three weeks.
"That's the feeling I've been looking for the whole season," Ornelas said. "Trying to look at the pitch, stay relaxed and not trying to do too much. I just think in my mind, just see the ball and hit the ball. ... That's worked for me."
One could make an argument that Ornelas has been the TinCaps' MVP this season. Of the players that have stayed here all season, he has had the best overall campaign (though Justin Lopez's defense at short makes it closer than the statistics would say). The top 30 Padres prospect has now played two full seasons with Fort Wayne – he also spent all of 2018 in the city – and there's a good chance he'll start next season in Double-A at all of 22 years old. If he's done playing in the Summit City, it's clear he'll miss it.
"The city's great, I love the fans here," Ornelas said. "It's too much fun playing here. I love this stadium, the clubhouse, I love everything here. There are a lot of Mexican people here [Ornelas is a native of Villahermosa, Mexico], so I feel comfortable here, too."
This could also have been the last game in Fort Wayne for manager Anthony Contreras, the all-time winningest skipper in franchise history. He's been managing the TinCaps for five seasons and it's possible he returns next season for a second year at High-A, but there's always a chance this is it for the manager who led the TinCaps to the 2017 Midwest League Championship Series and within one game of the playoffs in 2018.
Contreras expressed his admiration for everyone in the Fort Wayne organization after the game this afternoon.
"It just adds to the experience of my career, the players' careers," Contreras said of being with the TinCaps and at Parkview Field. "We get spoiled rotten coming to the field every single day, being able to work in a facility like this and then being around the fans and the atmosphere that gives us energy when we're tired.
"It means the world. I've been grateful to be here for five seasons, not everybody can say that in minor-league baseball. It's very rare to have the opportunity to come to the place that many years in a row. I don't take it for granted. ... If I'm back, I'm back and if I'm not I'll do my best to groom the next person coming in here and be ready for a successful season."
The last game of the season at Parkview Field is always a bittersweet occasion. This season was different than most because of the attendance restrictions and all of the other pandemic precautions put in place throughout the campaign, but the team made it through to the end of 2021 after it had to go without baseball in 2020. It's time for a deep breath and winter hibernation before the TinCaps return in 2022.