SIOUX CITY -- Assured of posting the best record in American Association baseball this season, the Sioux City Explorers weren’t resting on their laurels Wednesday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
Quite to the contrary, the newly crowned South Division champs were shifting into a new gear with just five games left before their third playoff bid in four seasons.
Recently acquired Jason Garcia, a major league veteran, twirled a nifty two-hitter and Nate Samson’s five hits led a big night for the offense as Manager Steve Montgomery’s team rolled 14-0 in the first game of a three-game series with the Texas AirHogs.
Garcia, who made 21 relief appearances for the 2015 Baltimore Orioles, faced one batter over the minimum while allowing two singles and a pair of walks to the league’s losingest team (Texas is now 25-70).
Meanwhile, the Explorers put up a double-digit run total for the third game in a row, equaling a franchise record achieved three times previously (in 2011, 1998 and 1997).
This one followed Monday’s division-clinching 14-5 rout of Kansas City and then the wild 14-13 loss on Tuesday to the T-Bones, who battled back from an early 8-0 deficit to hang onto second place in the race with Wichita for the South’s other playoff slot.
Those two challengers launched a pivotal three-game series Wednesday night in Kansas City and the visiting Wingnuts prevailed 6-3. Kansas City, falling to 59-35, trails Sioux City (68-27) by 8.5 games while Wichita (59-36) is just a half-game behind K.C.
Garcia didn’t allow a batter to reach second base while surrendering singles in the fifth and ninth innings to a team that has become a training ground for Team China. Both of those baserunners were erased on double plays, as was one of the two batters to draw a walk.
“I try not to think about who I’m facing,’’ said Garcia, now 3-0 in as many starts since being acquired after another ex-big leaguer, Taylor Jordan, signed with a team in Taiwan. “It’s just more what my plan’s going to be and just staying in that and trying to execute every pitch. I’ve been ironing out some things in my mechanics and little by little things are getting better.’’
The dominating performance saw Garcia strike out seven batters while needing only 83 pitches to register Sioux City’s first complete-game shutout of the season. It was the sixth time the X’s have held an opponent scoreless, but the other five involved bullpen help.
“He controlled the game,’’ said Montgomery. “He allowed our defense to get off the field. It was minimal pitches. And then obviously the offense did what the offense is capable of doing.’’
Texas starter Zheng Haonan, a mere 19-year-old, didn’t make it through four innings as the Explorers stung him for five runs. The hosts did all the rest of their damage in a nine-run seventh inning, second only to the league record-tying 12-run ninth inning they manufactured in a 19-5 blowout Aug. 21 in Fargo.
Samson, one of three Explorers to drive in three runs on the night, added his first five-hit game of the year to a pair of four-hit nights he’s had while going 16 of 30 over the last six games. With 135 hits on the year, he’s just two away from the single-season club record he set two years ago as the league’s player of the year.
“Whenever it gets down to the late part of the season, you really try to lock in,’’ said the veteran shortstop from Ocala, Fla. “You take a glance at your numbers and you might be close to a record or something. You’re trying to make a push to end the season strong. The saying is it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’’
The first five Sioux City batters rapped singles in the seventh-inning explosion. Michael Lang was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game and the X’s managed to leave the bases empty after collecting seven hits and a walk.
Blake Schmit, a former all-star shortstop with Sioux Falls, drove in three runs on two hits that hiked his average to .375 in 28 games since being picked up after outfielder Jay Austin went to the Mexican League. It was also a three-RBI night for first baseman Dean Green, the team’s most recent addition.
“We’ve got to continue to prepare just like it’s Game 1,’’said Montgomery. “We’ve got to get back into our routine. We’ve gone away a bit from our routine because we just wanted to give guys rest. Now, we need to get back into our old routine.’’