SIOUX CITY – The injuries have definitely taken their toll on the 2017 Sioux City Explorers.
Never before has the 25-year-old franchise seen anything like it.
And, even though many of the wounded warriors have made their way back to the diamond, almost none of them is completely healthy. So, it was simply par for the course Sunday night when two more injuries impacted the X’s in their next-to-last game of the season.
The star of the game, mind you, was clearly Sioux Falls rightfielder Jabari Henry, belting three home runs as the Canaries went deep four times in a 6-1 victory at Lewis and Clark Park.
A solo homer in the fourth inning, a two-run blast in the fifth and then another bases-empty bomb in the eighth almost surely locked up an American Association home run title for Henry. Despite missing his team’s first 12 games, the 26-year-old slugger from Orlando, Florida, hiked his season total to 29, five more than anyone in the league heading into the end of regular season play on Monday.
For the Explorers, though, the prospect for success against a strong lefthanded pitcher became all the more daunting when a roster with only five righthanded hitters among 12 available position players had to go most of the contest with only three of them.
Rookie southpaw Bo Hellquist, outstanding in six starts since moving out of the bullpen, wound up facing six lefthanded batters after second baseman Tanner Vavra (rib injury) was a pre-game scratch and first baseman Tyler Ogle left shortly after being hit by a pitch in his only at-bat of the game.
“I tried to get all five of my righties in there, but Vavra’s got ribs out of place and then Ogle gets hit on the hand,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery.
It was a game that ended with a little friction between the I-29 rivals after Sioux City reliever Bubby Rossman hit two straight batters with pitches in the ninth inning.
“We were flat and we had no spark,’’ said Montgomery. “Maybe that sparks us for tomorrow (season finale at 2:05 p.m.).’’
The ace of a strong NCAA Division II team at Minnesota-Duluth last year, Hellquist baffled the Explorers in similar fashion to his first American Association start on July 30, a 3-0 victory in which he pitched five shutout innings and allowed two hits, picking up the win.
This time, Hellquist, winding up 4-1 for his six late-season starts, allowed only three hits in seven shutout innings before two more hits got Sioux City on the board in the bottom of the eighth.
With a southerly breeze blowing out to left field, Henry broke up a scoreless tie, sending a 2-2 pitch from Keith Picht out of the park. Three pitches later, Picht also served up the season’s 20th homer to the Canaries’ Chris Jacobs.
With two outs in the fifth, the guests’ Burt Reynolds, the league’s co-champion in homers last season, reached on an infield single before Henry’s second clout opened up a 4-0 advantage.
Henry’s third shot gave his team a 5-0 cushion in the top of the eighth and the Canaries tacked on one additional run in the ninth, when Henry, seeking to match a league record of four in a game, was retired on strikes by Rossman.
Eudor Garcia was the only player with more than one hit, collecting the X’s only extra base hit with a double to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Daniel Jackson followed with a base hit that moved Garcia to third. Even though he scored one batter later, it came on a double play bouncer that pretty much pulled the plug on a meaningful rally that already didn’t seem likely.
Although lefthander Hobbs Johnson is scheduled to start the season finale, Montgomery said he’ll also likely call on Justin Vernia, Ryan Flores and P.J. Francescon, as well, along with possibly one or two others. The Canaries, seeking to split the season series at 6-6, are slated to pitch the ace of their staff, Grady Wood, who is 8-3 with a 2.60 ERA, second best in the league.