SIOUX CITY -- The Sioux City Explorers’ claim to American Association baseball’s South Division title was delayed at least another day as the Sioux Falls Canaries blanked the X’s 3-0 Saturday night in a series finale at Lewis and Clark Park.
One night after an 8-3 win locked up their third playoff berth in four years, the Explorers entered the game needing only one more good thing to happen in order to nail down a flag in the 12-team league’s stronger of two six-team divisions.
Neither of those -- not a victory for Sioux City or a loss for second-place Kansas City -- managed to happen as the X’s slipped to 66-25 and the T-Bones (57-33) remained mathematically alive, trailing by 8.5 games with nine games left for either team.
Three of those will be head-to-head meetings in a series that was slated to get under way Sunday in Kansas City’s Community America Ballpark. That's a venue where the T-Bones have scored 29 runs the last two nights -- an 18-6 romp over Winnipeg on Saturday after a 13-11 setback in a wild Friday contest.
Miles Nordgren, a hard-luck Sioux Falls righthander, logged seven shutout innings while picking up just his second victory in seven decisions this season. Nicco Blank and Kyle Schepel each added an inning of scoreless relief work as the Canaries, trying to avoid a last-place North Division finish, enjoyed one of their biggest wins of the season.
As Sioux City’s league-leading offense was kept off the scoreboard for just the fourth time in 91 games, Sioux Falls pulled even with Winnipeg at the bottom of the North standings, each at 37-55.
“There’s a lot of emotion in this game,’’ said fifth-year Sioux City Manager Steve Montgomery. “Last night, you clinch that playoff spot. We’re on a super high and you come out knowing the division is still there to be had. Credit Miles Nordgren, though. That’s the best I’ve seen him throw.
“He utilized the elements (a brisk wind from the south blowing out to left-field). He let the lefties pull it up into the wind hard. We hit a lot of balls hard that way (but) the ball’s not going anywhere that way. He kept the ball off the big part of the plate and it was a good performance by him.’’
The Explorers’ James Dykstra, dropping to 8-4 with the second loss in his last two starts, wasn’t exactly ineffective in a seven-inning performance. Dykstra, allowing three runs on seven hits, was credited with a quality start as his teammates were limited to six hits.
Sioux Falls got all the offense it needed after Dykstra issued a leadoff walk in the third inning to Jordan Smith. The righthander then allowed No. 9 batter Jeff Malm, struggling with only a .212 batting average, to lift a one-out fly ball into the jet stream to left field, collecting his third home run of the season.
The Canaries added to that 2-0 lead after Maxx Garrett led off the fifth inning with a double into the left-field corner. Two outs later, Mike Hart’s RBI single made it 3-0.
The score remained that way even though Hart’s base hit was the first of three in a row for the Canaries, who had Hart thrown out at home plate by X’s shortstop Nate Samson.
“We leave the ball up and that changes the game,’’ said Montgomery. “We didn’t seem like ourselves and it is what it is.’’
Two three-game road series with the two clubs battling for the other South Division playoff berth are sandwiched around one last three-game series at home Wednesday through Friday against the Texas AirHogs, five games worse than anyone else in the league’s overall standings.
The X’s play their final three regular season games in Wichita, which is just a game behind Kansas City.
With a crowd of 2,131 on hand, Montgomery had a few words for that gathering after a disappointing loss that isn’t likely to mean anything to the X’s.
“Last night, we clinched a playoff berth,’’ he said. “Now, we want to win the South Division. That’s a plaque. I want the big plaque (league championship), but we need every single one of you throughout the playoffs. We need to make this the hardest damned park in the league to play at and it’s because of the fans.’’
Blake Schmit and Michael Lang each had two of the Explorers six hits in the game. Schmit, a former all-star shortstop for Sioux Falls, finished the series 6-for-10 against his former teammates while Lang hiked his club-record total to 560 career hits.