Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper often talks about the importance of just getting into the playoffs, where an anything-can-happen mentality prevails as a 100-game regular season turns into two best-of-five sprints.
One of these years, that “anything” may be a Wingnuts championship. But after a fourth trip to the playoffs in five years, Wichita is still looking for its first title.
A late rally against Gary SouthShore fell short, and the RailCats won 6-5 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to win the series 3-1. The Wingnuts left the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth and a man on in the ninth.
Gary finished 9 1/2 games behind the Wingnuts in the Central Division as Wichita set the league record with 68 regular-season wins. The Wingnuts swept Grand Prairie in the first round but couldn’t figure out the pesky RailCats, who managed 20 home runs as a team during the 100-game regular season but almost never fail to put the ball in play or draw a walk.
Wichita has been the most successful AA regular-season franchise during Hooper’s five years as manager, but the Wingnuts have never broken through in the playoffs. During their four appearances, they have lost twice in the opening round, and the last two years they’ve come up short in the championship series.
Saturday, they came up short by the narrowest margins, leaving the bases loaded after scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth to cut a 6-2 deficit to 6-5. Madison Beaird lined out to end the inning, during which Gary used three pitchers. David Amberson’s RBI single followed a sacrifice fly and bases-loaded walk and put Beaird in position to give Wichita the lead. It was a sharp turn of events from the first six innings.
Gary starter Morgan Coombs, who rarely uses the same arm slot in consecutive pitches and consistently works the outer half of the plate, made the Wingnuts visibly uncomfortable for most of his 7 1/3-inning performance. His string of nine straight retired was broken up by a two-out walk to John Rodriguez in the sixth, which may have signaled the beginning of his ineffectiveness.
Coombs escaped the sixth but allowed the first two batters of the seventh to reach via a hit and a walk. David Amberson brought Jake Kahaulelio and Nieves home with a single off the glove of second baseman Pulfer, and Coombs only lasted two more batters after that. One of them, Beaird, produced a double play that ended Wichita’s seventh.
Gary extended its lead to 6-2 in the top of the eighth, but the Wingnuts found new life, perhaps out of desperation, when Coombs exited after retiring the first batter of the eighth.
Estevan Uriegas walked Jared McDonald and allowed a single to Rodriguez, prompting his exit. C.J. Ziegler greeted Ian Durham with a sacrifice fly and Jake Kahaulelio singled to bring up Nieves as the tying run. He walked, as did Armstrong to bring in a run. But Wichita came up one hit short. Wichita was retired in the ninth with a man left on first base.
At times Saturday, the moment appeared too big for the Wingnuts, but they recovered nicely in the later innings.
Mental mistakes plagued them during Gary’s three-run second inning, when third baseman Abel Nieves made an ill-advised throw to second after fielding a groundball even though Brian Kolb, who was attempting a steal on the pitch, had already reached the bag.
That put runners on first and second with no outs, and on Zac Mitchell’s bunt single, pitcher Junior Guerra attempted a flip to third that skipped by Nieves and allowed a run to score. Daniel Puler, Gary’s No. 9 hitter, proceeded to drive in the first two of his three RBIs with a single.
Guerra, pitching on three days’ rest, labored from the start, walking two of the first three batters as Gary took the lead in the top of the first. Guerra had little success with any pitch other than his fastball, which is arguably the best in the league, but with no secondary pitches working, even his elevated velocity didn’t have its usual effect.
Guerra survived five innings with the help of three double plays, but those double plays were necessary because the RailCats had a bounty of baserunners. Guerra walked four and struck out two, well below the standards he set during the regular season. Fatigue may have been a factor, as Guerra is well above his career-high in innings pitched.
The Wingnuts, meanwhile, didn’t have the opportunity to ground into many rally-killing double plays for the first two-thirds of the game. Rallies, in fact, were scarce, as the Wingnuts had two bloop singles and an infield hit over the first six innings, which also included a walk.