SIOUX CITY -- On a rare outing when American Association baseball’s leading offense wasn’t having much success, the league’s best pitching staff took up the slack Wednesday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
James Dykstra allowed only one run in a six-inning start and the bullpen trio of Ryan Flores, Patrick Schuster and Eric Karch finished it off as the Sioux City Explorers squeezed out a 3-2 victory over the first-year Chicago Dogs.
Climbing to 60-21 with 19 games left on their 100-game schedule, the X’s of Manager Steve Montgomery inched closer to their third division title in the last four years.
It was the first of two games here for a Chicago team that has been greatly revamped since a rude introduction to the Association saw a 13-game losing streak saddle the Dogs with a dismal 1-14 start.
Under the direction of Butch Hobson, the former Boston Red Sox manager, the franchise from Rosemont, Ill., has since gone 32-33 and had won seven of their last 11 starts before this one.
Schuster, a major league veteran, worked a perfect eighth inning, striking out two batters, and Karch also fanned a pair while retiring all three batters he faced to collect his 20th save of the season. It would have been his 14th save in his last 14 appearances if not for a 2-1 loss to Kansas City last Saturday, when a dropped pop fly led to the two unearned runs that turned the tide.
“You’ve gotta have short-term memory as a closer and most of the good ones do,’’ said Montgomery, suffering considerable discomfort from a back injury. “(Karch) had a fantastic month of July and hopefully he has another one here in August.’’
Geoff Broussard, returning to Sioux City after reaching the Class AAA ranks in affiliated baseball, began the season in the closer role. However, when Broussard ran into some struggles, Montgomery and his pitching coach, Bobby Post, had a look at a few other options in a strong relief corps.
“Once you start to see that he can have success in that role, you keep giving him the ball in that situation and he hasn’t failed.’’
Karch, a closer as a senior at Pepperdine, has now struck out 53 batters in 38.1 innings over 34 appearances and sports a stingy 1.64 earned run average. Schuster’s 38 trips to the mound have led to a 4-0 record and a 0.99 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 27.1 frames.
“All the credit to Schuster,’’ said Karch. “(He had) a great 1-2-3 inning. But we’re a team and everybody has to do their job. He set it up and I knocked ‘em down.’’
Back-to-back two-out doubles by Nate Samson and Jose Sermo got the Explorers on the board first in the bottom of the first inning. Chicago, now 33-47, tied it up when Stephen Perez delivered the last of three straight singles to lead off the top of the second.
The X’s regained a 2-1 lead with a leadoff walk in the fourth to Jose Sermo, who scored on a triple to left-center by league RBI leader Jay Baum. Once again, though, the guests managed to square it at 2-2 in the seventh with a one-out walk, a base hit that put runners on the corners and a sacrifice fly.
The Explorers got the eventual game-winning run in the home half of the seventh as Blake Schmit led off with a single and moved over to third on Dylan Kelly’s double. An intentional walk with one out in the inning loaded the bases and Nate Samson followed two batters later with a clutch RBI single.
“You just stay calim, take it as a normal at-bat and don’t try to add any extra pressure,’’ said Samson, the league’s Player of the Year in 2016. “I’m still just look for a good pitch to hit there and try to drive it somewhere.’’
Chicago managed an 8-7 edge in hits on the X’s, who’ve been outhit just 30 times in 81 games. The Dogs also got a quality start from righthander Josh Goossen-Brown, surrendering three runs in six innings, leaving after the seventh-inning base hits by Schmit and Kelly.
The Explorers, runaway leaders in the entire 12-team league and a Southern Division race that boasts the Association’s three winningest clubs, reduced their magic number for clinching the division to at least 11.
Second-place Kansas City stood 10.5 games out after losing the first game of a Wednesday night doubleheader with Fargo-Moorhead while Wichita (50-32) slipped 10.5 games off the pace.