SIOUX CITY -- A night of redemption for Jay Baum and Parker Markel was an inspiration, to be sure.
Most importantly, though, it paved the way to a walk-off 3-2, 11-inning Sioux City Explorers victory over the Kansas City T-Bones Friday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
Baum’s base hit through a drawn-in infield plated the winning run and gave the American Association RBI leader enjoyed a two-hit performance to snap out of a frustrating slump at the plate.
Then, there was the scoreless two-inning relief effort for the hard-throwing Markel, picking up his first win just one night after a nightmarish outing saw him fail to deliver any of five batters he faced.
Following up on a 7-5 win on Thursday, the X’s third extra-inning triumph in as many tries guaranteed no worse than a split of a four-game series between the league’s two winningest teams.
The Explorers, now 58-20 with 22 games to play, widened their advantage to 8.5 games over Kansas City (49-28) in a South Division race involving the 12-team league’s three best records. Third-place Wichita (48-29) remained 9.5 games in back of the X’s with a win over Cleburne.
“These kids in this clubhouse, they just don’t quit,’’ said Sioux City Manager Steve Montgomery. “They never have. They’ve come out here on a mission because I’ll tell you right now we have people that doubt us. (Saying) we’re not that good and everything. We believe in each other.’’
After Kansas City tied the game 2-2 with two runs in the seventh inning, two excellent bullpens kept the game deadlocked until the dramatic finish.
Leading off the 11th for the X’s, Luis Durango bounced a single over the head of the third baseman and then Sioux City’s all-time hits leader, Michael Lang, reached on a bunt single to the right side.
Unselfishly, the league’s 2016 Player of the Year, Nate Samson, dropped down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners over. Playing the percentages and also perhaps mindful that Baum had gone just 2-for-31 over the last seven games, the T-Bones elected to walk Jose Sermo intentionally, loading the bases with one out.
“You always want a chance to win a game for your team,’’ said Baum, who has remained the Association leader in RBIs despite his recent struggles. “I’ve been working a lot with Matt (Passerelle, the hitting coach) and it paid off right there. We fixed a few things in the batting cage.’’
“Credit Jay Baum because that kid took 250 swings today, trying to get out of his funk,’’ said Montgomery. “And you know what? He had two hits tonight. Credit that kid for coming in here knowing he’s been struggling and trying to get out of it, putting in the hard work.’’
Rookie righthander Justin Vernia, who blanked the T-Bones on three hits over the first six innings, exited after the guests broke through on him in the seventh inning. However, since a 4-3 loss in Lincoln in his season debut May 20, this made it 15 starts in a row for Vernia that resulted in wins for the X’s, who also remained perfect at 14-0 in Friday contests.
It looked for a time as though the hosts would pay dearly for two early rallies they frittered away. Despite three hits in each of the first two innings, the X’s came away with only a single run.
A double play ended the first, which netted a run. Then, careless baserunning in the second frame saw two runners erased to let three hits go for naught.
The Explorers made it a 2-0 lead with an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth. Jose Sermo’s second single of the night came with two outs and Baum followed with a base hit up the middle. The running game, then, made it a 2-0 lead as a double steal drew a wild throw to third by catcher Adrian Nieto, allowing Sermo to race home.
Kansas City got to Vernia in the top of the seventh, getting the second of three hits by Mason Davis to lead it off. A walk to Todd Cunningham, the league leader in batting, was followed by a potential double play ball that Samson, the shortstop, failed to handle, loading the bases with nobody out.
Taking advantage was former Explorer Noah Perio, Jr., sending a game-tying two-run single up the middle. With two runners in scoring position, veteran reliever Patrick Schuster left them stranded with a strikeout and a groundout.