The Wingnuts have led by at least three runs in the seventh inning or later in every game of their current five-game winning streak, including Saturday night’s 8-7 win over Sioux City.
But that’s not always optimal for a relief pitcher.
Big leads decrease the pressure that many late-inning pitchers thrive on, and low-leverage situations force some specialists into situations with which they’re not accustomed because they have to pitch sometime.
That happened Saturday, when lefty specialist Nick Walters pitched the entire eighth inning instead of facing one or two left-handed batters and quickly exiting.
Walters allowed four runs while recording two outs, but Wichita’s bullpen ultimately came out ahead. Andrew Aizenstadt worked out of trouble, and closer Josh Dew pitched a perfect ninth to salvage the rare one-run game that ended in Wichita’s favor.
Eleven of the Wingnuts’ 14 losses have come by a run, but Saturday, Wichita’s bullpen showed it is often most effective when the game is on the line.
“We trick ourselves,” said Dew, who notched his eighth save. “If I come in and it’s not a save situation, I treat it like it is. The crowd’s a little more pumped up in a closer game and you feel the energy a little bit more, but the mindset of a reliever (is to) always pitch like it’s a tie game or we’ve got a one-run lead.”
Like it has so often in a recent scoring surge that has netted 126 runs in the last 15 games, Wichita delivered early, scoring four runs in the first with RBI hits from Abel Nieves and Cole Armstrong.
The Wingnuts have scored four or more runs in the first in four of the last five games, but the true hallmark of the winning streak is their ability to add on, especially when the opponent trims its deficit.
Sioux City cut Wichita’s lead to 5-3 in the fourth, but the Wingnuts answered with three in the bottom half for an 8-3 lead. Abel Nieves, whose hitting streak ended Friday at 19 games, hit his second double to score two runs.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Nieves said. “Start a new (streak). (Friday) is behind me. I didn’t get the right pitch in my last at-bat. I was trying to keep it going, but I couldn’t, so I started a new one today.”
The Explorers, who don’t have a left-handed hitter on their roster, aren’t the ideal opponent for Walters, and they struck him early with two singles and a hit-by-pitch to load the bases with one out.
After a fielder’s choice forced a runner at home, Alberto Espinosa lined a double to left field that bounced off the glove of Colt Loehrs — the third ball to hit a Wichita outfielder’s glove without being caught, but the only one ruled a hit.
Aizenstadt allowed an RBI double to Adrian Martinez before a strikeout kept the tying run in scoring position.
“Trying to get him work,” Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said of Walters. “But no excuses — I’m not an excuse guy. You’ve got to come in and get your work done. … It’s a tough spot for him, he’s not accustomed to doing that.”
Dew, who also has become more used to pitching in low-stress situations, finally got a small lead to protect.
Sioux City may have had momentum going into the ninth after its big eighth inning, but Dew made sure it didn’t affect the outcome, retiring the Explorers in order for an uneventful save.
“I thought they were going to try to bunt on me,” Dew said of the light-hitting Explorers. “I just tried to throw strikes. They’re a free-swinging team. They don’t walk a lot, so the more strikes and more quality pitches, you can get them out.”
|Kaskadden 2b||4||1||0||0||Khoury ss||5||1||0||0|
|Barroso ss||5||0||1||0||Kahaulelio 2b||3||1||0||0|
|Judah lf||5||1||2||0||Rodriguez dh||4||1||1||0|
|Murton 1b||3||0||0||0||Ziegler 1b||4||2||3||1|
|Barrows rf||2||2||0||0||Clevlen cf||3||2||1||1|
|Inoguchi cf||4||2||1||0||Nieves 3b||4||1||2||3|
|Espinosa c||3||1||2||3||Armstrong c||2||0||1||2|
|Martinez dh||4||0||1||1||Loehrs lf||4||0||1||0|
|Bistagne 3b||4||0||1||0||Amberson rf||4||0||1||0|
E — Espinosa (3), Clevlen (1), Amberson (1). DP — Wichita 1. LOB— Sioux City 5, Wichita 6. 2B — Inoguchi (14), Espinosa (4), Martinez (2), Ziegler (15), Nieves 2 (14). SB — Judah (1), Bistagne (4), Kahaulelio (3). CS — Barroso (6), Kahaulelio (1), Nieves (3), Armstrong (1).
Umpires — Home, P.J. Krauss; first, Brock Ballou; second, Joe Pascucci.
T — 2:47. A — 5,028.