SIOUX CITY – From bad to worse. Way worse, actually.
And, heaven knows, things have been going rather badly of late for the Sioux City Explorers, a baseball team riddled with injuries and showing no capacity to respond favorably to adversity.
One night after letting a league-funded travel team make them their first victim in 25 games against the American Association’s North and Central divisions, the X’s demonstrated Wednesday night that it had been no fluke.
Three unearned runs on an inexcusable error were part of it, yes. But a team campaigning under the name “Salina Stockade” definitely earned their keep, belting three home runs out of spacious Lewis and Clark Park while embarrassing the Explorers with an 8-3 rout.
Everyone thought it showed moxie for a rookie-dominated squad to accept playing 100 games on the road this season, filling in after the Association lost the Laredo Lemurs franchise, folding two weeks before the season.
They kept their chins up after 22 losses in a row sent their record to 2-23 and also when another 12 in a row made it 3-35. Back-to-back wins June 26-27 over the Association’s new team, the Cleburne (Texas) Railroaders, got them to 4-35. And, the mark was 6-49 when they opened here Tuesday night.
The only venue in the league they hadn’t visited, the Stockade celebrated by clipping the Explorers 4-3 for their first win in 25 games against the eight teams from the North and Central Divisions. You had to hand it to this collection of players drawn together from a low-budget, 12-team independent circuit called the Pecos League.
Wearing the uniforms of a Pecos League team that represented Salina, Kan., last season, these are players pooled from throughout that league by Commissioner Andrew Dunn. They’ve not been spare parts, certainly, but they’re mostly players that didn’t get much of a look from the Association, much less affiliated ball.
“Earlier in the season we didn’t have these same people and we lost a lot of games early,’’ said J.D. Droddy, the 73-year-old former U.S. Air Force pilot and Harvard Law School grad who has retired many times from a wide range of careers, including two times he’s supposedly hung it up after managing Pecos League teams.
“If you look the last 15 or 20 games, we’ve been playing pretty well,’’ said Droddy, whose team has batted first in every game, even a four-game series played in Salina. “We haven’t won all of ‘em, of course, but we’ve been playing everybody pretty tough. The Pecos League season is going to end pretty soon, too, and we’ve got some other good players lined up, wanting to come.’’
One such player was Wednesday’s Salina starter, Jared Koenig, a 6-5, 215-pound lefty who allowed one earned run in an eight-inning American Association debut. It was his reward for going the distance in his last of four Pecos League starts for the Monterey (Calif.) Amberjacks. It’s unique, right?
Koenig, though, had a decent senior season at NCAA Division II Cal State-Monterey Bay last year, posting a 4.57 ERA with a modest 3-1 record in 14 starts. However, he had transferred there after getting just 15.1 innings of work as a junior at Old Dominion, a so-called mid-major.
The 23-year-old from Aptos, Calif., won’t know what Wednesday’s wins really means until he’s faced a team in this league that isn’t struggling in just about every way. After being outhit 11-7 on Tuesday, the Explorers again finished with seven hits while the Stockade totaled 12.
“I’m at a loss for words, to be honest,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, whose team has tumbled from a Central Division-leading 22-14 record to 27-28, losing 14 of 19 to dip below .500 for the first time since losing two of their first three 2017 contests. “Offensively, we’re taking strikes and we’re swinging at balls. Pitching-wise, we’re throwing heaters on the big part of the plate and we’re making dumb pitches with runners in scoring position.’’
Hobbs Johnson, a southpaw who has been the X’s most reliable starter, gave up 10 hits before exiting after collecting just one out in the fifth inning. He had already given up a pair of home runs by catcher Jesse Baker and the second round-tripper in as many nights for catcher-first baseman Cody Coffman.
The visitors’ other three runs were the product of the continuing defensive woes for recently acquired Joe Bennie, whose seventh error in 20 games with the team let the Stockade add three unearned runs in the fourth inning.
With two outs and runners at second and third, Scott Stetson, another Salina player making his debut, hit a slow roller to Bennie, playing second base. Unfortunately, Bennie’s seemingly routine throw pulled first baseman Dre Gleason off the bag and both runners crossed the plate while Gleason was unable to make a successful tag.
Roche Woodard followed with a double to add a third run to this inning and Johnson, whose focus seemed to have vanished, walked the leadoff man in the fifth before back-to-back homers by Coffman and Baker made it 8-2.
Leadoff man Tony Campana had three hits and Bennie, moving to the 2-hole, added two to account for all but two hits for the Explorers.
Rookie righthander Ryan Flores came out of the bullpen and fanned seven batters in 3.2 innings for the X’s and now has 57 strikeouts in 43 innings.
Campana had an RBI double in the third inning and scored in the ninth on a base hit by Bennie. The other Sioux City run came without benefit of a hit in the fourth frame, when two walks and an error led to an unearned run.