SIOUX CITY – For the Sioux City Explorers, a third consecutive trip to American Association baseball’s four-team playoffs has probably been all but a mathematical longshot for more than a week, probably longer.
For the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, though, the party is far from over.
And, this is a team that came into a Wednesday night doubleheader at Lewis and Clark Park with just one win in its last eight starts. It was a skid that presumably led to the firing Sunday of Doug Simunic, the only manager the 22-year-old franchise had ever known.
Making up a Tuesday rainout with a pair of seven-inning games, the RedHawks’ 13-2 first-game frolic made it easy to tell which team still had plenty of games left to make up a four-game deficit in the league’s wild-card race.
Then, while the 6-5 nail-biter that completed a twin bill sweep showed considerably more pride from the Explorers, it allowed the Hawks (43-26) to climb within a mere 2.5 games of wild-card leader Kansas City (47-35). And, Fargo-Moorhead (43-36) has another 21 games remaining compared to the T-Bones’ 18.
Belting a pair of three-run homers, Keury De La Cruz drove in a whopping eight runs in Game 1, one shy of a league record, as the visitors scored in all but one of seven innings. It made things easy for veteran righthander Tyler Herron, improving to 7-3.
A perennial offensive juggernaut, the RedHawks showed nothing of the struggles that have left them next-to-last in the league in batting at .241, going 16-for-33 before adding another 10 hits in the nightcap.
For the eighth time in his last nine starts, lefthander Cody Forsythe of the X’s wasn’t fooling anyone in the opener. Then again, neither were relievers Chris Powell or Bubby Rossman, who finished things off while Lang fell to 1-7 in his nine-game free fall.
De La Cruz, a 26-year-old Dominican who spent seven years in the Red Sox’ farm system, landed in Fargo last season and batted .316 with 18 homers and 72 RBIs. That earned him a contract this year with the Mariners, but this proved to be a dead end. A little over a month after returning to the RedHawks, he was hitting .257 in 34 games and had gone deep only three times. This was a new page, to be sure.
The powerful leftfielder had already followed Devan Ahart’s leadoff double with a run-scoring single as the second batter in the game. The Explorers answered with a two-run first frame and then got their only shutout inning of pitching in the top of the second.
From there, however, the Explorers’ offense took a snooze while De La Cruz led the way to a scoring avalanche.
First, he homered after teammates Yhoxian Medina and Devan Ahart started the third inning with a double and a single, respectively. One inning later, his second three-run bomb capped off four unearned runs made possible by an error on a two-out ground ball.
Comfortably in front 8-2, the RedHawks just kept going, plating five more runs in the final three innings, adding seven hits off Powell and Rossman after tagging Forsythe for nine.
De La Cruz added a run-scoring ground out in the final frame and his two round-trippers sent Forsythe’s home runs allowed to a league-leading 19. The southpaw, now 4-8 after 11 wins fell one shy of the league high last season, also surrendered a league-high 24 homers in that 2016 campaign, one short of a league record.
The X’s grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning of the second game and took a 3-1 advantage into the fifth frame. Then, after rookie starter Justin Vernia surrendered a pair of two-out singles, trimming his team’s lead to 3-2, Manager Steve Montgomery turned to reliever Brad Orosey. The move didn’t work.
Orosey walked KD Kang to load the bases, then didn’t get the call on a close 0-2 pitch to Charlie Valerio, who cashed in with a two-run single that sent the RedHawks in front 4-3. A costly throwing error accounted for one of two sixth-inning runs that pushed that to 6-3, but the X’s made some late-inning noise that could easily have turned the tide.
Michael Lang’s solo homer was the first of four one-out hits in the bottom of the sixth and Tony Campana’s RBI single up the middle would have plated a tying run, as well, if not for a nifty play by second baseman Brandon Tierney. Keeping the ball in the infield, Tierney forced Tanner Vavra to stop at third base. And, that’s where he remained after a strikeout and an athletic play by Valerio, the catcher, pouncing on a chopper 30 feet in front of the plate to gun down Nate Samson for the third out.
LeVon Washington’s third hit of the game led off the home half of the seventh, but not even a walk and wild pitch could bring home the equalizer in a game that also saw Vavra go 3-for-3 while Tyler Ogle drove in two runs with a home run and a single.