SIOUX CITY – James Russell’s major league experience probably exceeds that of anyone else in baseball’s independent American Association.
After handing the Sioux City Explorers their first shutout loss of the season Saturday night, the 31-year-old lefthander could very well be headed back.
Russell, working all eight innings in the first of two scheduled seven-inning contests at Lewis and Clark Park, came away with a 2-0 victory as the Texas AirHogs turned an errant pickoff throw into a victory.
Jayce Ray’s three-run homer in the second inning of Game 2, meanwhile, salvaged a split with a 5-2 verdict for the Explorers, coming to life after Russell left them with a three-game losing streak for the first time.
Prior to last season, Russell had piled up 387 big-league relief appearances from 2010 through 2015 and all but 22 of those were with the Chicago Cubs – the team that forced him into free agency a year ago last December.
Two years later, the son of former All-Star closer Jeff Russell is pitching in suburban for a team that had lost 14 in a row before splitting a four-game series concluding Thursday in Winnipeg against the defending league champion Goldeyes.
“The game’s getting younger and younger,’’ said Russell, a 6-4, 205-pound southpaw who scattered five hits in an efficient 93-pitch performance. “It’s tougher for guys in my position just getting jobs.’’
A bullpen workhorse who had pitched in over 60 games a season in Chicago, had no choice but to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies prior to spring training last year. More youth-oriented, even, than most other MLB organizations, the Phillies shipped him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley for most of the season and then turned him loose.
The only thing tougher than that was watching the team for which he’d played six years win its first world championship in 108 years.
“It was bittersweet,’’ reflected Russell. “I was happy for the guys. I have so many friends on that team. Would it have been nice to be a part of that? Sure. But that’s the way it goes.’’
For the time being, the Cincinnati native is trying to do what he can for a Grand Prairie-based team that had lost 14 in a row before splitting a four-game series in Winnipeg and then grabbing the series opener here.
“All I can hope for is to keep doing what I’ve been doing,’’ said Russell, now 2-1 in six starts and sporting a 2.08 ERA that will move him up to at least fourth in the league.
Sioux City lefty Hobbs Johnson, a former University of North Carolina star, dueled Russell superbly for six innings in a game that seemed destined to hinge on a mistake.
With righthander Brad Orosey starting his second inning in relief of Johnson, Alvaro Rondon, the AirHogs’ fleet leadoff hitter, opened the eighth inning with a base hit through the right side.
Then, with Orosey watching him closely, Rondon coaxed an errant pickoff throw that enabled him to race all the way to third. One strikeout later, the Explorers opted to load the bases with back-to-back intentional walks to Levi Scott and Denis Phipps, the Hogs’ 3-4 batters.
The strategy backfired after a 1-2 pitch to Brian Ragira was ruled just off the plate, which led to another base on balls and the only runs the guests would need. Jake Taylor’s sacrifice fly made it 2-0 and that was plenty for Russell to finish up with a 1-2-3 inning.
Game 2 saw the X’s shake off eight scoreless first-game innings by scoring in each of the first three frames. Sandwiched around Ray’s three-run blast were single runs in the first and third, staking starter Kramer Sneed to a 5-0 lead.
Manager Steve Montgomery’s two-time defending Central Division champs were actually facing another former major leaguer in Carlos Contreras, who worked in the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen in 2014 and ’15.
Contreras surrendered a walk and two hits, including an RBI single by LeVon Washington while surrendering Sioux City’s first run of the twin bill.
In the second inning, Josh Vitters rapped a one-out single, Dylan Kelly walked and then Ray, with two outs, yanked a 1-1 pitch over the right-field wall to make it 4-0.
John Nogowski, the league’s leading hitter, homered to lead off the home half of the third. Then, after the visitors scored a pair of unearned runs in the fourth frame, the X’s capped off their scoring with a run in the fifth.
Nate Samson, extending his hitting streak to a league-best 16 games, scored the winners’ final run after a leadoff base hit, reaching second on a wild pitch and coming home on a throwing error after a second hit in the contest for Nogowski.