Juan Richardson’s injured hand keeps him from throwing with authority from third base to first and the Wingnuts’ bullpen defections forced them to activate pitching coach Luke Robertson on Tuesday.
These are, at worst, minor problems for the Wingnuts, who continue to win even when faced with obstacles. They won their fifth straight on Wednesday afternoon at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, beating Amarillo 6-2.
Ben Graham saved the bullpen with six strong innings, turning in his best start of the season, and Richardson went 4 for 4, breaking out as he attempts to build momentum after a three-week layoff.
The Wingnuts improved to 24-8 and entered today with a seven-game lead in the American Association Central Division over Sioux City. They’re expected to add at least two pitchers for their upcoming road series against the Explorers.
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"Picking each other up, that’s what it’s all about," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. "I was worried about (working with a short bullpen the last two days), but we couldn’t have mapped it out any better."
Nate Robertson pitched two scoreless innings in his Wingnuts debut on Tuesday before another newcomer, Nick Schreiber, went the next five to ease the pressure on Wichita’s few relievers.
Graham’s performance on Wednesday had a similar effect. Hooper said he could tell from Graham’s first pitch that his command and effectiveness would be a change from the inconsistency Graham had shown during previous outings, and Hooper was proved right.
After allowing two runs — one earned — in the second inning, Graham faced the minimum over the rest of his start, retiring 10 in a row at one point. He didn’t walk a batter — though he hit one — and faced one three-ball count, displaying control that allowed him to expand the strike zone and force the Sox to swing at pitches on the corners or off the plate.
"The past couple starts I’ve been really zoning in and just getting better week by week," Graham said. "Today I felt pretty good. I was dotting the Is and on the outer black and everything. In the fifth and sixth inning (the home-plate umpire) started to open up and started giving me those calls on the corners, helping me out a little."
Wichita pitchers made Amarillo’s usually potent offense look ordinary during the Wingnuts’ three-game sweep. The Sox lead the league in batting average, runs and hits, a product of a home field that visitors detest but one the Sox use to their advantage.
Tim Alberts leads the league with a .423 average but went 1 for 8 in the final two games of the series and had two strikeouts on Wednesday. Amarillo managed eight hits and three runs in those games and didn’t have an extra-base hit.
"On paper, they’re a very good team playing at that ballpark," Graham said. "They’re leading the league in average, but we’ve heard that on the road they’re struggling. I just had to go after them and see if they could hit the fastball. They really didn’t prove it, so I just kept going after them."
Amarillo had a 2-1 lead after two but Richardson but the Wingnuts ahead for good with a three-run homer in the bottom of the third, two innings after his RBI single gave Wichita its first run.
Richardson didn’t play for about three weeks between being released by his Mexican League team and being signed by the Wingnuts. He had 86 RBIs last season but hadn’t provided similar pop this season, with three extra-base hits in his first 56 at-bats. He went 4 for 4 Wednesday with four RBIs, showing signs of a possible turnaround.
"That’s good to see from him," Hooper said. "He’s still coming along. He sat for three weeks, and I feel like that timing is getting better and better. You can tell by the way he takes off-speed pitches — that’s how I can usually tell with him and his timing. Good day from him today. It’s good to see him rolling, because he’s big for us."
|White ss||4||0||0||0||Khoury ss||3||1||0||0|
|Buschini lf||4||0||2||0||Kahaulelio 2b||4||1||3||0|
|Tucker rf||4||0||0||0||Rodriguez lf||2||1||1||1|
|Alberts 1b||4||1||1||0||Freeman 1b||2||0||0||0|
|Espinosa c||4||1||0||0||Richardson 1b/3b||4||1||4||3|
|Pope 3b||3||0||2||1||Ziegler dh||4||1||1||0|
|Lofgren dh||3||0||0||1||Peralta rf||4||1||1||1|
|Rau 2b||3||0||0||0||Carrillo 3b, lf||2||0||1||1|
|Kain cf||2||0||0||0||Whitehead c||4||0||0||0|
E — Khoury (3). LOB— Amarillo 3, Wichita 5. DP— Amarillo 1, Wichita 1. 2B— Kahaulelio (9), Ziegler (10). 3B — Peralta (2). HR — Richardson (2).SF — Carrillo (2). CS — Buschini (3).
|Garcia L, 1-1||6||9||6||6||2||4|
|Graham W, 2-2||6||3||2||1||0||4|
HBP — by Graham (Kain). WP — Garcia. Umpires — home, Dan Hoffman; first, Joe Pasucci; third, Chaz Stodola. T — 2:14. A — 3,066.