SIOUX CITY -- Backs to the wall, the Sioux City Explorers responded Saturday night with precisely what they needed -- a victory over the Kansas City T-Bones.
Lefthander Ian McKinney turned in a strong pitching performance and catcher Dylan Kelly had a 3-for-3 night as the X’s prevailed 5-0, forcing a deciding fifth game Sunday night after a Friday night setback gave the T-Bones a 2-1 advantage.
This semifinal American Association playoff series pairs up the two winningest teams in the 12-team league, but Sioux City’s South Division champions, finishing the regular season at 71-29, had nine wins more than a Kansas City squad that finished second in the division at 62-37.
“This isn’t a normal game,’’ reflected fifth-year Manager Steve Montgomery, who has led the Explorers to three playoff trips in the last four years. “Realistically, once every five to 10 years do you experience a game of this magnitude in your own ballpark.’’
Montgomery noted that not even his 2015 juggernaut, owners of the league’s best record ever at 75-25, had a Game 5 at Lewis and Clark Park. That team finished off St. Paul in four games, the last of those at the Saints’ $60-million CHS Field. Then, in the championship series, although the deciding game of the championship series was played here, it was another Game 4 in which upstart Laredo stunned the heavily favored X’s.
McKinney, a hard-luck 2-2 in nine regular season starts, combined with three relievers to hold the visiting T-Bones scoreless for the second time all season. Even the Explorers, who led the league in batting and runs scored, came up scoreless four times over their 100-game schedule.
“Obviously, what McKinney did off the mound was special,’’ said Montgomery. “In that type of game, that kind of atmosphere, what you’re up against. That team -- you can’t say enough about that team (the T-Bones). To pitch the way he did was a superb effort and it got us where we wanted to be after being down 2-1. It got us to a Game 5.’’
Meanwhile, a potent Sioux City offense that had been limited to 15 runs in the X’s last six games, got a major lift in the second inning, when Kelly belted an RBI double off the left-field wall and rookie Daniel Jackson followed with a two-run homer over that same eight-foot high barrier.
The 3-0 lead remained that way until the Explorers added two more runs in the eighth inning with the benefit of only one hit. Three walks were the key to that rally and the last one forced home a run before Luis Durango’s sacrifice fly made it a 5-0 game.
“We played great as a team and it felt like I just contributed a little bit,’’ said Kelly, a former University of Missouri star who added a single, another double and one of the eighth-inning walks in his four plate appearances. “It was good to get that team going. We’ve got some juice left. I feel good about tomorrow. I think we’re ready to rock and roll.’’
The all-important Game 5 clash will be a repeat of Game 1 on Tuesday in Kansas City, where Sioux City’s James Dykstra allowed just two hits in seven innings of a 4-1 victory. It was a victory at the expense of T-Bones’ ace Tommy Collier, who matched the X’s Justin Vernia with a league-high 12 wins and hadn’t suffered a defeat in his last 15 starts.
The X’s had won 18 in a row with Vernia on the mound, but Friday’s setback marked their second loss in his last two appearances.
“(Collier is) a very good pitcher and we’ve battled him a couple times,’’ said Kelly. “He’s had our number and we’ve had his. We’ve just gotta keep battling. These games, every inning is a battle and every pitch is a battle.’’
“Let’s call a spade a spade,’’ said Montgomery. “We’re going to have our hands full (against Collier and his teammates). You’ve just gotta get there, you just gotta figure out a way.
“It’s what you play for. It’s just things you didn’t think about five years ago when you’re sitting at a press conference,’’ he said, recalling his introduction as the Explorers new manager. “You dreamed about it, you envisioned it. To actually live through it, it’s pretty damned special. What these guys of ours have done all year is pretty damned special.’’
A season-long series filled with dramatic installments has only gotten more intense in postseason play. After Tuesday’s Sioux City win, the T-Bones won 4-2 on Wednesday, when the X’s left 13 runners on base, nine of them in scoring position. Then came Friday’s 5-2 Kansas City victory, which was knotted up 2-2 after six innings.
Saturday’s win featured a combined 6-for-14 batting performance by the last four batters in the order while the first five, including all three of the Explorers’ postseason league all-stars, were only 2-for-14.
“Offensively, we had guys step up,’’ said Montgomery. “Guys that weren’t load carriers per se all year. D.K. (Kelly), Jackson with a two-run homer. It’s always somebody you maybe don’t expect. We got some pitches to hit and we didn’t miss ‘em.’’
The X’s had baserunners in all eight innings they batted, totaling 15 on the game with eight hits, six walks and a hit batsman. Kansas City put nine runners on base with six hits, all singles, along with two walks and an error.
Ryan Flores took over for McKinney in the top of the eighth, logging two outs before a base hit by Todd Cunningham, the league’s leading batter for several weeks before Sioux City’s Nate Samson made a large surge to win that title with a .340 average. Patrick Schuster, a lefthander with major league service, faced the dangerous Noah Perio, Jr., and surrendered a hard-hit liner that Michael Lang managed to chase down for the third out.
Closer Eric Karch took over in the ninth and had a 1-2-3 inning on three straight pop flies.
Elsewhere Saturday, the semifinal between the North Division’s two playoff entries, saw St. Paul finish off Gary in four games with a 1-0 cliffhanger. The Saints will host Games 1 and 2 of the championship series on Tuesday and Wednesday before the winner of the series here hosts the remainder of the series.