SIOUX CITY – Just seven nights before this, the Lincoln Saltdogs dropped their fifth game in as many meetings this season with the Sioux City Explorers.
Not only that, but those five defeats in as many tries sent the Saltdogs’ record against Sioux City to a remarkable 2-24 since the start of the 2015 campaign.
Friday night, however, a Lincoln team poised to win the American Association’s Central Division title launched five home runs out of spacious Lewis and Clark Park, powering its way to an 8-2 victory that may have made a little history.
The Saltdogs hope to be doing plenty more history-making in just a few short weeks, but the question for the moment was whether or not they’d become the first team to produce a five-homer game in the X’s 25-year-old ballpark. The answer was not readily available.
Tommy Mendonca and Brent Dean, two former Explorers, got into the home run derby that made it three Lincoln wins in a row over the X’s, whose mastery of the Saltdogs came to an end with 4-1 and 5-4 setbacks to finish off last weekend’s four-game series at Haymarket Park.
“You’re just going up there trying to get a hit,’’ said Tommy Mendonca, one of the leading fan favorites in the Explorers’ quarter-century of baseball. “You get ahold of one, great. (X’s starter Kramer Sneed is) a great pitcher. It just makes you try harder.’’
The Most Outstanding Player for Fresno State’s 2008 College World Series champions, Mendonca was the Sioux City third baseman for the last three seasons, driving in 163 runs. That total ranks eighth on the team’s all-time list, but that’s only one of several Top 25 listings here for the former second-round major league draft pick.
Catcher Brent Dean, who played his first six professional games for the 2009 Explorers, fresh out of UCLA, sent the first of three homers allowed by Sneed over the left-field wall with two outs in the second inning. Mendonca’s two-run blast to right center with two outs in the third inning made it a quick 4-0 Lincoln lead.
The Saltdogs, 51-30, are now five games up in the Central over the Gary SouthShore RailCats, now 47-36 after knocking Kansas City (47-37) out of second place with an 8-1 romp Friday night.
Meanwhile, it was yet another disappointment in a late-season nosedive that has seen the Explorers match a season-worst six-game losing streak, tumbling six games under .500 at 39-45 with 16 games left to play.
“Everybody’s frustrated right now, trying to do too much,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, who boiled over on a close play at the plate that snuffed out a potentially big seventh-inning rally. Home plate umpire Kurt Branin, heckled throughout the contest for his strike zone, needed less than 10 seconds to declare Montgomery’s night finished – unofficially, his eighth ejection of the season.
“The ball flies here now,’’ said Montgomery. “The new wall (an eight-foot barrier installed this spring, replacing a 10-footer) has made a huge difference. We’re gonna have to re-think things on probably adding a little bit more power in the middle of your lineup for next year. But then maybe it’s just unseasonably warm and the wind will be different next year.’’
Veteran righthander Shairon Martis, a former major leaguer, blanked the X’s over the game’s first five innings after limiting them to one run over eight frames of a 4-1 win last Saturday. The 30-year-old from Curacao, the former Dutch Antilles off the coast of Venezuela, started to tire in the sixth, staked to a 6-0 lead.
Hot-hitting LeVon Washington’s one-out drive to right-center went for a two-run double, but opportunities to do more damage fizzled out in the rest of that inning and also in the seventh, when the X’s loaded the bases with one out.
The seventh-inning uprising collapsed when Tony Campana’s liner to left field was snagged and then turned into an inning-end double play when Branin ruled Dre Gleason out at the plate. Montgomery said Gleason was certain he’d touched the plate with one hand before Dean, the catcher, tagged him.
It was the second game in a row that a double by Washington accounted for the only runs by a struggling Sioux City offense, following up a 4-1 loss on Thursday that let Fargo-Moorhead complete a three-game series sweep.
Montgomery’s theory on the park’s more generous ball flight was backed up somewhat by a rare bomb to straightaway center by rookie Joe Robbins, who hit for the cycle in a loss to the X’s last week. That fourth-inning blast was followed by Curt Smith’s solo shot in the seventh and then a two-run dinger in the ninth by Randolph Oduber.