The Wingnuts may not have been at their best offensively during the last two games against Fargo-Moorhead, but it’s difficult to fault their timing.
Wichita went seven innings without a hit on Saturday before winning with a run in the 11th. Sunday afternoon, the Wingnuts failed to register a baserunner after the fourth inning.
But it was Jared McDonald’s two-run, two-out triple in the fourth, McDonald’s second clutch hit in as many nights, that provided the difference in Wichita’s 3-2 win at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in the rubber game of a three-game series between first-place teams. All three games were decided by one run.
Rookie left-hander James Giulietti, making his Wingnuts debut, allowed two hits and two runs over six innings with eight strikeouts, possibly cementing his status as Wichita’s No. 5 starter for the rest of the regular season.
“I don’t know, offensively, what’s going on,” Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. “We only got five hits again today and if you look at the quality at-bats, the circles on my card, there weren’t too many of them. But we got enough, and our pitching has been tremendous the last two nights. They’re the ones that pretty much won the games for us.”
After six Wichita relievers combined for 5 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday, Giulietti did most of the work to earn the win in his debut. Pitching exclusively out of the stretch, Giulietti surrendered a second-inning single before retiring the next 10 hitters consecutively.
A sixth-inning walk led to a two-run, two-out home run by Nick Jackson, but Giulietti overcame fatigue to strike out C.J. Retherford on six pitches to preserve the lead. Four Wichita relievers sewed up the win.
“It kind of hit me a little bit,” Giulietti said of Jackson’s homer. “I made a bad pitch, and in this league they’re going to make you pay for it. You just have to come back and keep throwing strikes.”
Giulietti said he wasn’t overwhelmed by the prospect of being thrown into a pennant race for the Wingnuts, who own the American Association’s best record at 58-28, because he pitched in a similar situation this season with Fort Worth of the United League.
His time there did a lot to prove that his successful first start, against a potent Fargo lineup, didn’t come out of nowhere. In 25 appearances (six starts) with Fort Worth, Giulietti owned a 1.56 ERA and had allowed 45 hits in 57 2/3 innings.
The momentum Giulietti built in Forth Worth, along with Fargo’s unfamiliarity with him added up to many hitters being baffled by his tricky release point and willingness to throw any pitch regardless of the count.
“It always helps when a team doesn’t know you, doesn’t have a scouting report on you,” Giulietti said. “It always helps. But they’re a great hitting team, and you just have to attack them. Attack them and pitch your game.”
Jake Kahaulelio provided Giulietti an early lead with a first-inning solo homer. After stranding runners in the next two innings, the Wingnuts broke through in the fourth after they were in danger of failing to capitalize on the first two batters reaching base.
McDonald rescued the two batters before him by lining a triple down the right-field line and into the corner. After a Friday loss to Fargo, Hooper decried Wichita’s lack of two-out hitting, but McDonald has produced in those situations the last two days, including a two-run single during Wichita’s three-run second on Saturday.
“I’m just trying to pick guys up,” McDonald said. “I know (new outfielder Waylen Sing) Chow’s first days, he’s excited to get in there and get some swings _ maybe a little too excited at times. You’ve just got to relax and take away from his at-bat. He did a good job (Saturday) of seeing a lot of pitches, which gave me a good gauge of what I was going to see.”
Jackson’s homer came after Wichita began its hitless stretch, and the bullpen held the lead in large part because of Jackson’s next turn at-bat. With runners on first and third, Jackson grounded into a double play, with the relay by Kahaulelio at second base narrowly beating him.
Closer Josh Dew retired Fargo in order in the ninth to give Giulietti the win. He’s the ninth starting pitcher to win a game for the Wingnuts this season.
“It’s great to know that they’re bringing in the right guys,” McDonald said. “They come in with the ability to throw strikes and keep us in ballgames.”