SIOUX CITY – As the American Association schedule reaches the midway mark, the St. Paul Saints definitely seem to be the most frightening team in the 12-team league.
Sure, Wichita’s South Division leaders entered play Tuesday with a league-best 32-12 record. That was clearly better numerically than the 27-16 mark that had St. Paul on top by five games in the North, typically the league’s premier division since the last realignment.
Factor in the significant contrast in schedules, though, and the Saints are the team you’d least likely to face after they have just lost three in a row for the first time all season.
Add to that the veteran righthander, Mark Hamburger, the Association’s winningest pitcher, and your odds of winning are as bad as they seemed after St. Paul blew open an 8-0 lead in the first five innings of Tuesday’s Fourth of July festivities at Lewis and Clark Park.
These weren’t the fireworks a crowd of 3,065 turned out to see, anyway. Those came after the Saints had ended their mini-skid and wrapped up an almost inevitable 12-1 thrashing of the injury-plagued Sioux City Explorers.
Still, Sioux City’s two-time defending Central Division champs, slipping to 23-19, didn’t lose any ground in a tight Central race in which all four teams lost interdivisional matchups after going 4-0 against the same foes Monday. The X’s remained just 1.5 games behind co-leaders Kansas City and Lincoln, both now 25-18.
St. Paul may have a few issues in the pitching department and that didn’t improve when closer Seth Rosin was signed last Friday by the Giants. Nonetheless, Manager George Tsamis’ team has even more offensive muscle than the traditional power they always seem to wield.
Anthony Gallas homered for a third game in a row, becoming the third player to reach double-digits for a team that has Tony Thomas tied for third in the league with 11 round-trippers while Gallas and teammate Brady Shoemaker are tied for fifth with 10.
That doesn’t include Nate Hanson, a slugger whose seventh homer of the year was the last of three in the game for a team that piled extra bases on six of their 18 hits, three more than the X’s had previously allowed.
Gallas, 3-for-5 while raising his average to .362, finished a double short of becoming the first St. Paul player ever to hit for the cycle. He is definitely on a roll after a seven-year climb through the Cleveland Indians’ farm system was sabotaged by a torn labrum two years ago.
Released just days after coming back too soon last spring, he opted to attempt playing his way back to health, rehabbing while accepting a job with the Kansas City T-Bones. He hit 16 home runs for the Bones, but a .221 batting average didn’t reflect the talent that had him battling for a major league opportunity with a team that wound up in the World Series last November.
“I was probably 70 percent of what I normally was,’’ reflected Gallas, a Kent State product. “I couldn’t throw the ball at all and it was still a battle every day at the plate.
“I would say I’m back to where I was before the surgery. Now, I feel like myself again and baseball, it’s fun again.’’
Lefthander Cody Forsythe and the Explorers trailed only 1-0 after three innings, but homers by Gallas and Kes Carter highlighted the eight hits by 12 additional batters Forsythe faced before an early exit one out into the fifth frame. It was a barrage that produced three runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth.
The Saints made another four runs in the eighth look easy against reliever Bubby Rossman, unable to retire the first six batters in the inning. Just the night before, of course, the converted outfielder, Rossman, had filled in as the first baseman and supplied the three-run double that spelled the difference in a 4-2 Sioux City win.
“Wichita has the best record in the league because they’ve played Salina 12 times,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, well aware the Wingnuts will play 51 games against the three divisional rivals that are probably the three worst teams in the league.
“In my opinion, this (St. Paul) is your best team in the league. Or the best that we have faced, I haven’t seen everybody yet, but that’s the best lineup in the league and they’ve got a true No. 1 in Mark Hamburger. They’ve got a middle part of the order that makes you pay if leave the ball up.’’
Hamburger, a 30-year-old Twin Cities-area native with some major league time under his belt, improved to 8-1 with a 2.89 ERA, allowing just five hits and one run.
Actually, the Explorers should have tallied two runs on a sixth-inning double by hot-hitting Dylan Kelly. Two runners crossed the plate, but LeVon Washington, the second of those, met a somewhat rare fate when it was ruled he had missed third base and became the second out.
After finishing up with St. Paul tonight, the Explorers face their third consecutive weekend series with Kansas City, visiting CommunityAmerica Park for a four-game set starting Thursday night.