SIOUX CITY – If you can’t make it to the American Association playoffs, the next best thing is what happened Thursday night for the Sioux City Explorers.
Taking on a Kansas City T-Bones club tied for the league’s wild-card lead with only five games remaining, the Explorers not only dealt the Bones a costly defeat, they also equaled their third most decisive win of the season with a 9-1 rout.
Rookie righthander Justin Vernia pitched seven strong innings in a runaway triumph that earned the X’s a split in a four-game series that could very well help deny Kansas City their first postseason opportunity in seven seasons since joining the league.
Tyler Ogle drove in three runs, Nate Samson enjoyed a three-hit night and the only player in the starting lineup to go hitless was actually LeVon Washington, the team’s hottest hitter for the last three weeks.
“(Kansas City) scored the first run and we could have put our heads down, but we battled and we found a way to dig back,’’ said fourth-year Sioux City Manager Steve Montgomery, who led the X’s to their first back-to-back playoff appearances with Central Division titles the last two seasons.
“When you win games like this, against a team that’s fighting for the playoffs, it shows you character,’’ he said. “It shows us as a coaching staff -- and, it should show the community -- that we’re not throwing the towel in. We’re going to grind and we’re still trying to win games. These guys are coming in on a daily basis and they’re working hard. We’re still going to act like we’re leading the division.’’
A season that has seen them battle the worst siege of injuries in the team’s 25-year history has also been hamstrung by the continuing loss of key players to major league organizations. That’s definitely a goal in this league, but the Explorers have probably helped more players achieve that objective than any league rival in the last three years.
It’s somewhat noteworthy, actually, that Montgomery’s team is now 44-52 heading into a season-ending four-game series with the I-29 rival Sioux Falls Canaries. On top of everything else, the X’s probably wound up with the league’s toughest schedule.
Through this series, they’ve faced a non-playoff contender in just three of their last 31 games. That has included 21 contests with the three probable division champs (Winnipeg, Lincoln and Wichita) along with seven more against the T-Bones and Fargo-Moorhead, the wild-card co-leaders with 54-41 records prior to Thursday.
Fargo-Moorhead, snapping a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the eighth inning, took over sole possession of that lead at 55-41 after a 3-2 win over Lincoln. Falling one game back with four to play was Kansas City, now 54-42, while the Gary SouthShore RailCats were trying to reach that same record, leading 6-5 in the 10th inning of a nailbiter in Sioux Falls.
“We pitched good, we played good defense, we hit, we did everything tonight,’’ said Montgomery.
Kansas City scored the first run with three second-inning singles, getting on the board with a broken-bat blooper by Paul Hendrix. However, that would be the only run for one of the league’s more dangerous lineups.
Meanwhile, the Explorers were facing a talented righthander in Matt Sergey, who has authored two no-hitters in the last three seasons. Coming off seven shutout innings last Saturday in an 8-0 win over Gary, he apparently turned an ankle on a defensive play at first base and had to be lifted after just four innings.
Before that, the X’s scored twice each in the third and fourth innings.
In the third, Ogle’s two run double down the left-field line was actually Sioux City’s first hit of the game, following up a walk and a costly error.
In the fourth, two more crossed on the strength of four hits, one of them a sky-high pop fly leftfielder Kyle Petty lost in the night sky.
The X’s tallied five additional runs against two of the four relievers who followed Sergey. A three-run sixth featured Eudor Garcia’s double, an RBI single by Tony Campana and then three walks before Samson’s two-out single made the free passes pay off.
Ogle and Dylan Kelly each drove in runs as the winners added two more runs in the eighth.
Meanwhile, it was the best outing in six starts for Vernia, a 21-year-old rookie fresh out of Gonzaga University. Coming off a win last Saturday over Lincoln, Vernia improved to 3-2 even though his earned run average of 6.11 doesn’t give an accurate picture of how he’s performed.
It was the second eight-run victory of the season for the Explorers, who have topped that only in a 10-0 romp July 21 at Gary and a 12-3 blowout June 23 at Kansas City.
Sioux Falls hosts the first two games of the season-ending series with 7:05 p.m. starts Friday and Saturday. The teams then move to Lewis and Clark Park, squaring off Sunday evening at 6:05 and then Tuesday in a 2:05 p.m. matinee to close out the schedule.