SIOUX CITY – In more than 80 years since electricity gave baseball the option of playing games after dark, artificial “sunshine” has created plenty of nightmares for people trying to catch fly balls.
When it happened again Wednesday night at Lewis and Clark Park, it looked like a potentially pivotal break in a crucial game for the Kansas City T-Bones, a team trying to reach the league playoffs for the first time in their seven American Association seasons.
To some extent, perhaps, it was, representing just enough of a momentum swing to kayo the Sioux City Explorers, a team that has been out of the postseason chase for two or three weeks.
Then again, when the dust had settled, a decisive 8-2 victory for the T-Bones could scarcely be pinned on any one particular play.
Four hits each by Cedric Hunter and Marcus Lemon, the first two batters in the order, led the way for Kansas City, remaining tied with Fargo-Moorhead for the lead in a tight three-way battle for the lone wild-card berth in the Association’s four-team playoffs.
Both of those teams are now 54-41 with five games left to play after Fargo-Moorhead broke up a scoreless duel with Winnipeg, scoring four times in the bottom of the eighth for a 4-0 victory. Meanwhile, the Gary SouthShore RailCats, squeezing out a 5-4, 10-inning verdict in Sioux Falls, was still lurking just one game back at 53-42.
There was no such drama at Lewis and Clark Park, even though the Explorers took a 2-1 lead into the fifth inning before the visitors unleashed two innings of mayhem, scoring seven times on 10 hits.
One of those was the aforementioned bit of misfortune for the X’s, a one-out, bases-loaded fly ball that centerfielder Tony Campana lost somewhere between the lights and the descending twilight shortly before sundown.
Instead of a sacrifice fly that would have sent the guests in front 3-2, it officially became a three-run triple for Kevin Keyes, a former University of Texas slugger who shares the Association lead in home runs with 24.
The fifth and most devastating hit of the inning capped a four-run fifth frame. Then, Keyes also collected the last of five hits in a three-run sixth that blew it wide open.
Hunter, who now has nine hits in the first three games of this four-game series, looked as though he could be headed for consecutive league player of the week laurels after winning that honor on Monday. A major leaguer with the Phillies for 13 games last season, he was backed up impressively by Lemon, whose father, Chet, a three-time American League all-star, was in the crowd here on Monday and Tuesday.
The big night with the bats provided an overabundance of support for Luis Paula, a rookie righthander making the most of a late-season shot at a starting role.
Paula, a sleeper pick by the Pirates in the 2014 MLB Draft, has gone 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA in four turns since moving out of the Kansas City bullpen. It has been quite a breakout for a 24-year-old who had a 1-4 record with a 5.44 ERA to show for his seven starts and 23 relief outings in three seasons for the University of North Carolina.
Ironically, his six strong innings in this one came in a matchup with X’s lefthander Hobbs Johnson, a former star for the Tar Heels who was a year ahead of Paula.
Johnson, though, has suffered mightily from his team’s lack of offensive support, getting just 18 runs in his last nine starts, counting just two more in this one. Now 0-8 in this frustrating stretch, he has deserved a better fate in a number of those games, allowing four earned runs or less in his last six tries.
This time, however, the southpaw found far too many bats before exiting after six innings, as well. The T-Bones saddled him with 14 hits and all eight of their runs before Bubby Rossman finished up with three shutout innings.
Eudor Garcia’s sacrifice fly followed base hits by Tyler Ogle, Nate Samson and Dre Gleason as the Explorers took their ill-fated 2-1 lead in the second inning. Johnson rebounded after Hunter led off the game with a double and then scored on a base hit by Lemon. But after three shutout innings, the tide turned swiftly and decisively.
The teams wrap up the series Thursday night at 7:05 and then the X’s play a season-ending four-game series with the I-29 rival Sioux Falls Canaries, visiting the Bird Cage on Friday and Saturday before finishing at home Sunday evening (6:05) and Monday afternoon (2:05).