SIOUX CITY -- What goes up, must come down.
Sunday night at Lewis and Clark Park, Newton’s Law was doing its thing on Danny Hayes’ two-out pop fly with the bases loaded for the Kansas City T-Bones, clinging to a 1-0 lead in the top of the seventh inning.
What looked like a routine third out, though, was a ball veteran rightfielder Michael Lang simply lost in the evening sky -- a terrible twist of fate that brought an end to a fantastic season for the Sioux City Explorers.
A mishap that was ruled a gift three-run double became the difference in the game, scoring all three baserunners and sending the T-Bones to the American Association championship series with a 4-2 victory in Game 5 of a best-of-five semifinal playoff matchup.
Instead of the X’s, nine wins better than anyone else in the 12-team league with a 71-29 regular season record, it will be Kansas City, a distant second in wins at 62-37, that will face the St. Paul Saints in a best-of-five title clash starting Tuesday in St. Paul.
“You lose a fly ball in a high sky and it’s something we deal with here a lot when you get a high sky,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, referring to the time just before twilight when the vision issues have caused problems.
“You know, every time it’s that one inning where you can’t see anything,’’ said Lang, the sixth-year Explorer who owns a host of franchise records. “Why did it have to happen tonight? Why did it have to happen with the bases loaded and two outs.”
“You know, it’s not Michael Lang’s fault,’’ said Montgomery, who led the X’s to their third playoff appearance in four years, two of those with league-leading regular season records. “We’re not in this position if we don’t have Michael Lang on this team. And there’s no one that feels worse in that clubhouse than Michael.’’
In a duel between two outstanding pitchers, veteran catcher Adrian Nieto, who reached the major leagues with the 2014 Chicago White Sox, opened the fifth inning of a scoreless contest with a fly ball that barely cleared the left-field wall for a home run.
That was all the scoring until the fortuitous seventh for the T-Bones, who had four hits off Sioux City’s James Dykstra in the first six innings. Kansas City ace Tommy Collier, the league strikeout king and co-leader in wins, was even better, allowing just four hits and one run while striking out nine in seven innings.
“Yeah, it’s a tough way to lose, but you’ve gotta credit Tommy Collier, he pitched a great game,’’ said Montgomery. “And hats off to James Dykstra. He battled. It was a pitchers’ duel through sixth innings. I just felt if we could keep that game right there that we had a shot.’’
Dykstra gave up base hits to two of the first three batters in the game-changing seventh and the Explorers, needing a strikeout, turned to lefthander Ryan Horstman, who fanned 47 batters in 32.1 innings during the season. Four pitches later, though, lefthanded batter Keith Curcio had a walk that loaded the bases.
Out came righthander Luis Mateo, a season-long starter making his first appearances of the series. And Mateo, one shy of the league leaders with 11 wins on the season, looked like quite an ace in the hole when he fanned Alay Lago and was denied an inning-ending strikeout when a 1-2 pitch to Hayes failed to get the call.
It was on the next pitch that Hayes hit his lazy fly ball, a seemingly routine play for Lang, one of the X’s three postseason league all-stars.
Lang, whose spectacular diving catch brought an end to Sioux City’s 4-1 triumph in Game 1 on Tuesday, held out both arms, unable to locate the ball. Then, by the time he spotted it and quickly backpedaled into position to make the catch, he looked to have gloved the ball momentarily, only to lose it as he fell over backward.
It was a series dominated by pitching as the Explorers actually outscored the T-Bones 15-14 in five nerve-wracking clashes. Like all the others, this one went down to the wire as the X’s mounted rallies to score single runs in the seventh and eighth innings, leaving nine runners on base over the final five frames.
Blake Schmit singled, Dylan Kelly doubled and Daniel Jackson rapped an RBI single to get Sioux City on the board in the bottom of the seventh. However, Collier retired the next two batters to get out of that jam.
In the eighth, a hit batsman, a walk and a run-scoring single by Schmit made it a 4-2 contest before the hosts left two more runs on the basepaths.
Schmit and Jackson each had two hits, accounting for all but two of the Explorers’ sixth on the night. Meanwhile, centerfielder Todd Cunningham went 3-for-3 with a walk to lead a seven-hit night for the T-Bones.
“You feel like something’s missing,’’ said Montgomery. “To me, it’s just unfinished business. We’ve just got to find a way to put ourselves back in this position next year.’’