SIOUX CITY – Almost lost in the shuffle was the big milestone.
Steve Montgomery didn’t mind in the least. The important thing was his team had bounced back from an embarrassing 12-1 loss to win the rubber game in a three-game series with the powerful St. Paul Saints.
Righthander Kurt Heyer, shrugging off a rocky outing last Friday, worked into the seventh inning and then got relief help from Kevin McCanna and P.J. Francescon as the Sioux City Explorers collected a much-needed 4-1 victory Wednesday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
No announcements were made, but it was the 200th managerial win for Montgomery, now 200-143 in regular season play as he nears the halfway mark in his fourth season as the Explorers’ helm.
He has led the X’s to the first consecutive playoff appearances in the history of a franchise that is now in its 25th season. After back-to-back Central Division titles, he’s definitely in the hunt for another.
Oddly enough, though, Montgomery’s team is actually last in an extremely tight four-way chase involving four of the seven teams with winning records in the 12-team American Association.
Kansas City (26-18) took over sole possession of first place with a 6-5 win Wednesday over Sioux Falls and the X’s will visit the T-Bones for a four-game series starting tonight at CommunityAmerica Park. It’s the third straight weekend the teams have clashed and the first two have seen six of seven games go to the visitors.
Swept here by K.C. in three games last weekend, the Explorers (24-19) are still just 1.5 games out of first place. Tied for second, just a game off the pace, are Lincoln (25-19 after a 4-0 loss at Texas marked the Saltdogs’ sixth defeat in seven games) and Gary (26-20 after edging Fargo-Moorhead 2-0 to make it four wins in five starts).
“I’m paid to win ball games, but instead of wins and losses I just like to see us playing well,’’ said Montgomery. “The look and feel tonight? We just played solid defense, we were throwing strikes and we made some good plays defensively.’’
With three double plays making a major difference against the dangerous Saints, Montgomery’s team notched its 16th error-free performance. That’s definitely not as many as he’d have liked at this point, but the X’s are 13-3 when they make no errors.
St. Paul, in the meantime, was saddled with two very costly errors, both in the four-run rally that gave the Explorers all their runs in the bottom of the fifth. All of them were unearned.
Heyer, the ace of Arizona’s 2012 College World Series champs, landed in Sioux City after spending much of the last three years with the Cardinals’ Class AAA farm club. He got released in the off-season and then signed by Montgomery, only to land an offer from the Marlins a few days later.
Without ever getting an assignment from the Miami club, he was cut loose, becoming available to the X’s, after all.
That has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride with the righthander entering his ninth start of the season with a 2-4 record and a 4.95 ERA. Much of the damage came in two poor performances. One was last Friday, when he lasted just three innings against Kansas City. The other was the big nightmare June 13 in St. Paul against these Saints, who kayoed him with nine runs in four innings.
“My last start, obviously, wasn’t what I wanted,’’ said Heyer. “It hurt our bullpen. It hurt our team. I wanted to go out there and show I can still go deep into games and give my team a chance to win. They baled me out on a bunch of great double plays. It’s just something you want to build off for your next start.’’
“He’s going to be a guy who gets a ton of ground balls,’’ said Montgomery. “His ball doesn’t do the same thing twice. It’s sinking, it’s cutting – he relies on movement. He pitched out of jams tonight. It was good to see.’’
St. Paul scratched out the game’s first run in the top of the fifth, when Heyer issued a leadoff walk to No. 9 batter Joe Kristoffersen. Two outs later, Heyer lost Nate Hanson on a 3-2 pitch before a broken-bat single by Brady Shoemaker dropped into right field for an RBI.
It turned out to be the only run for a team that dealt Sioux City pitching season-high totals of 18 runs, 12 hits and three home runs Tuesday. Since the Explorers had pulled out a 4-2 win in the series opener on Monday, the bottom line became the 2-1 series triumph over the North Division leaders in a little over a week.
Misplays on grounders by two of the X’s first four batters in the home half of the fifth wound up getting runners to second and third with two outs. When Saints Manager George Tsamis elected to walk Tony Campana with first base unoccupied, the strategy backfired on back-to-back singles by Michael Lang and Nate Samson, each of them driving in two runs.
There would be no further scoring as the Explorers won with only seven hits, getting two for a second night in a row from Samson, last year’s league MVP.