SIOUX CITY – Putting the brakes on a season-worst four-game losing streak was Job No. 1.
With the St. Paul Saints’ North Division leaders coming to town, there was no better antidote for the Sioux City Explorers than Kramer Sneed, a veteran lefthander with plenty of motivation for this particular challenge.
For the second time in five nights, one of three American Association pitchers to win 15 games in a season was facing the team that released him barely more than a month ago.
And, just as he’d done last Wednesday at CHS Field, the 28-year-old North Carolina native was equal to the task.
With post-game holiday fireworks attracting a season-high crowd of 3,749, Sneed allowed only one run in seven innings as the injury-ravaged Explorers squeezed out a 4-2 victory as a three-game series opener got completed despite light rain falling for much of the first six innings.
Relief pitcher Bubby Rossman, a converted outfielder, became the improbable hero offensively, delivering a clutch three-run double after two singles and a walk filled the bases with one out in the bottom of the second inning.
The switch-hitting Rossman, looking quite at home in a start at first base, yanked a pitch from righthander Jason Creasy into the gap in right-center, chasing home all the runs his team would wind up needing.
It certainly didn’t hurt, though, that St. Paul centerfielder Kes Carter lost LeVon Washington’s two-out, seventh-inning pop fly in the night sky, allowing Joe Bennie to score from first base and turn a 4-1 cushion over to the bullpen.
“We just have to keep our head above water right now,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, who got the season’s 10th save from closer P.J. Francescon. “We’re really banged up. But if we do that and get some key pieces that we have injured back into the lineup and find that (extra) piece of the puzzle later on down the road, then you might have something.’’
The two-time defending Central Division champs, now 23-18, remained just 1.5 games out of first place, but four interdivisional matchups yielded a 4-0 record for what is looking more and more like the American Association’s strongest division.
Co-leaders Kansas City and Lincoln each escaped with 10-inning triumphs, both improving to 25-17, while Gary, which is 25-19 after winning for the 10th time in 13 games, remained a lone game off the pace.
Sneed’s best performance yet for his new team was an encouraging sign.
“He’s not the Kramer Sneed of 2015 quite yet, but we’re being patient with him because every time out his ‘velo’ seems to be increasing,’’ said Montgomery, referring to Sneed’s fastball.
Sneed and Sioux City’s Patrick Johnson each posted 15 wins in 2015, matching the league record set by Wichita’s Josh Lowey in 2012. Then Sneed, the former Greenville, N.C., Little League nemesis to X’s teammate Alex White, took an offer in the Mexican League, where he went 10-5 with a 3.53 ERA last season, facing competition affiliated baseball compares to Triple-A.
When the Mexican League finished up in early August, Sneed came to St. Paul for three late-season starts. But when he remained with the Saints this year, a bumpy four-inning relief appearance was all it took to get him cut loose.
“There were some circumstances where I was going to be gone four days for a wedding and they needed a roster spot for another reliever,’’ said Sneed. “George (Tsamis, the longtime Saints manager) gave me all the chances in the world, he just couldn’t make it work for me at that time. He’s paid to win and there’s no ill will. We’ve talked and we’re good.’’
Yes, however, there was definitely a little extra in the tank for the two starts against the Saints in less than a week.
“That’s just because I know how good their lineup can be,’’ said Sneed, who allowed four runs in five innings when the X’s won 8-5 last Wednesday in St. Paul. “Just seeing the power they have 1 through 9 in that lineup, it’s a real grind. But it’s a fun challenge.’’
Sneed credits Montgomery and Bobby Post, the X’s pitching coach, for getting him back on track.
“When I first came here, honestly, I thought it was a confidence thing,’’ he said after his sixth start chiseled a little more off an ERA that has dropped to 5.84 from a discouraging 11.45 after his first two outings. His ERA for his four subsequent appearances is now 2.70.
“It was a little bit of mental along with some physical adjustments,’’ said Sneed, whose only run allowed came on a second-inning homer by Anthony Gallas. “I’ve pitched a lot the last few years and I’d just kind of gotten out of what I did well. So, me and Bobby and Mongo all worked together and made some adjustments.’’
Gallas had three of the Saints’ nine hits and drove in both of their runs. Meanwhile, the X’s also had nine hits, getting two more from the hot-hitting Kelly along with two each for Jayce Ray and LeVon Washington, whose base hits set the table for Rossman’s three-run double.
With the traditional post-game fireworks also slated for tonight’s July 4 contest, another large crowd is expected.