Any designs the Wingnuts had on being the best team at stealing bases or going first-to-third on singles appear to have been scrapped. Small ball is out and big innings courtesy of a deep, dangerous lineup are in.
The Wingnuts had two such innings Saturday night at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, when they beat North Division-leading Sioux Falls 9-4 in a rain-shortened, six-inning game to pull within two games of the Pheasants for the second-half lead.
After a 12-game road trip, the Wingnuts returned home to give Wichita fans a look at a contender, as well as an overhauled offense featuring middle-of-the-order hitters placed throughout the lineup.
"It's definitely a step up from earlier in the year," said Wingnuts outfielder Ryan Patterson, who hit a three-run home run to extend Wichita's lead in the fifth inning. "Earlier in the year, I felt like we had some holes in the lineup. Right now, from top to bottom, I feel like we have guys who can hit in the middle of the lineup."
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During the road trip, the Wingnuts acquired Cesar Suarez, Carlos Rivera and Raul Gonzalez, who occupied the Nos. 2, 4 and 5 spots in Saturday's batting order. Those three have submitted important contributions, but every hitter Saturday could claim he was a factor as Wichita won the opener of the most crucial series of 2010.
Every Wingnuts starter reached base, and only Carlos Rivera, who reached on a fielder's choice, didn't have a hit or a walk. Sioux Falls didn't have a hit until the fourth inning against Bubba O'Donnell, but the Pheasants took a 1-0 lead in the second thanks to a hit batter, a walk and an RBI groundout that followed a sacrifice bunt.
The Wingnuts also had help in the second inning, as a throwing error allowed a run to score before Jeff Christy drew a two out walk. But Wichita's five-run inning came mostly on its own merits, as Josh Horn, Suarez and Jorge Cortes delivered two-out RBI hits. Suarez drove in two with a single before scoring on Cortes' double against Sioux Falls starter Ryan Shaver.
"We've got a bunch of guys who like see a lot of pitches, who like to work the count," Patterson said. "Then we have other guys who are aggressive. I think it goes well together. We're just trying to get pitches to hit, get guys on base and drive them in. It's pretty simple."
The acquisitions of players with impressive track records, including ex-major leaguers Rivera and Gonzalez, seem to have given the Wingnuts a swagger they didn't have while struggling through the first two-plus months.
The music in the clubhouse after the game was at a previously unheard decibel level. That may mean nothing except that the Wingnuts enjoy celebrating, but the attitude seems to have changed as the Wingnuts have become contenders.
"It's a different atmosphere than we had in the first half, no doubt," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "I think we take the field, like I try to tell them all the time, confident that we're going to win a ballgame."
O'Donnell allowed two unearned runs in the fourth and Beau Torbert made it 6-4 in the fifth with a solo homer over the scoreboard in left field.
The Wingnuts pulled away in the bottom of the fifth. After Michael Bell reached on an infield single and Josh Horn walked, Patterson hit a first-pitch from Shaver off the scoreboard for his team-leading 12th home run.
Patterson, who has hit in several spots in the order this season, now finds himself leading off. He took two first pitches Saturday, but jumped on one from Shaver. Patterson felt he feels comfortable abandoning the typical approach of a leadoff hitter at times because of the quality of hitters who follow him.
"I kind of understand that I'm an aggressive hitter," Patterson said. "I always will be, and when I'm in the leadoff spot I feel it only changes my approach for the first at-bat of the game. After that, I feel like it's just a regular game. If I'm going to hit the first pitch or if I'm going to work the count, I don't really think about me being a leadoff hitter after the first at-bat."
O'Donnell didn't make it out of the sixth, leaving with a runner on first and one out in the sixth. Jacob Wiley got what proved to be the final two outs.
The Wingnuts left the bases loaded in the sixth, after which the game was called following a delay of about 45 minutes. That was the only scoring chance Wichita missed Saturday. Sioux Falls leads the American Association in many offensive categories, but the Wingnuts may now have a lineup that rivals the Pheasants.
"We put together a really good lineup," Patterson said. "Earlier in the year, we couldn't compete with (Sioux Falls') lineup, but now I think we have a chance. It's definitely a better feeling. We trust in our pitching staff. This is definitely better, and I'm excited to see what happens."