SIOUX CITY – Tough as things have been for the injury-plagued Sioux City Explorers, nobody seems to be ready to throw in that proverbial towel.
Far from it, in fact.
For the second time in three nights the Explorers survived a four-run first inning by the Wichita Wingnuts to pick up a victory, rallying to post a 6-4 win Sunday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
And, for the third night in a row, catcher Tyler Ogle contributed a home run to the cause as Manager Steve Montgomery’s team remained within six games of the lone wild-card slot the 12-team American Association’s reserves for its four-team playoffs.
“We’ve just gotta keep plugging away,’’ said Montgomery, the fourth-year Sioux City skipper who has led the Explorers to back-to-back Central Division titles and, of course, their first consecutive playoff appearances. “The biggest thing is we want to be playing good baseball each and every night. This is a step in the right direction, but at some point you’re going to have to rattle off six or seven in a row.’’
With 27 games remaining on their 100-game schedule, the Explorers are 36-37 and could actually match their 74-game record of 37-37 before a late-season surge let them repeat as a division champ last season.
Righthander Justin Vernia, a rookie fresh out of Gonzaga University, sandwiched two walks around a double to load the bases with only one out in his first inning of professional baseball. Wichita, which won a league semifinal playoff series over the X’s last September, cashed in on Vernia’s jitters with defending league batting champion Matt Chavez launching a 2-1 pitch over the left-field wall for a grand slam.
Two nights earlier, the Wingnuts’ first four batters collected hits and they jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead. The Explorers, though, answered with a five-run first of their own and then scored twice in the second frame before winding up with a walk-off, 9-8 triumph on LeVon Washington’s double.
This second 4-0 first-inning deficit in three nights took a little more time to erase. Washington’s solo homer in the second inning got the comeback started, then Michael Lang delivered an RBI triple in the third and Jonathan Gonzalez came up with a run-scoring double to pull the hosts within 4-3 in the fourth.
A costly error by the Wingnuts helped the X’s score three times in the fifth frame, all of them unearned, and the two-run margin of victory came from Ogle’s two-out bomb that he credited to his father’s sage advice.
“My dad has coached me since I was 5,’’ said Ogle, a former University of Oklahoma standout and a San Antonio native. “This ballpark is hard and he’s seen me fly out to the wall in center three times this year and he says, ‘Why don’t you just aim more left.’ That’s what I’ve been doing.’’
“You could tell the young kid was nervous out there,’’ said Montgomery. “I told him to relax and make your pitches. This is the same as college, you make your pitches, and you get guys out. It’s that way at every level. And, he went out and made his pitches. Then, our bullpen was able to lock it down.’’
Vernia, who was 22-0 in two seasons at Tacoma Community College before his two seasons at Gonzaga, allow only two singles over the last five innings of a six-inning performance that earned him a win. Ryan Flores followed with two innings and P.J. Francescon one as the X’s blanked the league’s top-hitting team for 26 outs after the bases-loaded clout just one out into the contest
Taking the loss for Wichita, the runaway South Division leader at 44-28, was 30-year-old veteran Tim Brown, who is 52-24 for his American Association career with Lincoln, Grand Prairie and Wichita. The St. Louis native trails only the 55 wins by former Sioux Falls ace Ben Moore and became No. 2 on the all-time list when he hit 46 last July 4.
Moore, though, is just 2-2 with a 6.66 ERA in five starts since joining the Wingnuts later after pitching in the Czech Republic this spring and early summer. He has also pitched the last four winters in Australia.
“We’re stoked to come out with a series win,’’ said Ogle, a former first-team prep all-stater in Texas who’ll turn 27 on Wednesday. “We need to keep winning games if we’re going to make the playoffs.’’
A four-year starter at Oklahoma, Ogle hit .331 and .343 in two seasons with the Sooners and then logged six seasons in the Dodgers’ farm system, belting 20 homers to help Rancho Cucamonga win the 2015 championship in the Advanced Class A California League.