The Sioux City Explorers aren’t done yet.
Two days after advancing to the American Association South Wild-Card game with a little bit of help from the last-place Houston Apollos, the X’s powered their way to a 4-0 victory over the Cleburne Railroaders on Wednesday, thanks to a strong performance from starting pitcher Patrick Ledet, and some big home runs from first baseman Jose Sermo and right fielder Lane Milligan.
With the win, the Explorers advance to the South Division Championship Series against first-place Kansas City.
The X’s have had a wild past three days. Immediately after learning that they had advanced to the postseason following Monday's 3-2 loss to Sioux Falls, the squad made the long drive to Texas for Wednesday’s matchup against the Railroaders.
The game was a pitcher's duel early on, as Ledet and Cleburne starter Jesus Sanchez traded zeros over the first five innings.
The X’s threatened in both the fourth and fifth, but couldn’t push runs across in either frame. Cleburne was also unable to take advantage of its opportunities on offense. The Railroaders had runners reach base in the first, fourth, and fifth innings, but were unable to score.
After five inning of shutout ball, Sioux City manager Steve Montgomery replaced Ledet with reliever Max Kuhns.
Ledet allowed just three hits and no walks, and like Zach Hedges in Monday's game in Sioux Falls, Ledet took the ball on short rest for the X’s.
“These guys have been taking the ball on short rest for probably two weeks,” Montgomery said. “He started to lose a little bit of his arm speed, and got underneath the ball a little bit in the fifth inning. He got through it, and at that point, obviously it was 0-0, and we felt it was important to get to the bullpen.”
The X’s finally broke through on offense in the sixth, with some power from a familiar source, as Sermo clubbed a pitch from Sanchez over the wall for his 30th home run of the season, giving Sioux City a 1-0 lead.
The Railroaders threatened again in the bottom of the inning by loading the bases with two outs, but Kuhns got third baseman Chase Simpson to fly out to left, and escaped the inning unscathed.
The X’s added another run in the seventh, when Sebastian Zawada led off the inning with a double, and was pinch-run for by Chase Harris. Harris advanced to third base on a wild pitch, and then scored on a sacrifice fly to center field by Lane Milligan, as Sioux City’s lead grew to 2-0.
Milligan added two more runs to the X’s lead in the ninth with a two-run homer off of a slider from Cleburne reliever Nick Gardewin, to extend the X’s lead to 4-0.
“The previous at-bat that I had against him, he threw me all sliders and showed me one fastball,” Milligan said. “I went up there looking for that pitch, and fortunately, he gave me the one I was looking for and I was able to hit it into the right field netting.”
Kuhns finished the game in the bottom of the ninth by striking out two of the final three Cleburne batters. Kuhns allowed one hit and one walk over four innings, while striking out three batters.
“Patrick Ledet threw his butt off and had a great start, and Max Kuhns came in and did everything he’s been doing all year,” Milligan said. “It’s really huge to have a guy like that in the back end of your bullpen.”
On offense, the X’s finished with six hits, two of them from Sermo, while Milligan led the way with three RBI.
“Our offense is lethal,” Milligan said. “We have one-swing potential to change the game. Sermo did his thing tonight, got us ahead early, and I think that definitely set the tone for the game. Luckily, I just got a pitch I was looking for, and was able to put the game away for us.”
When Kuhns struck out Cleburne third baseman Chase Sampson for the final out, the small X’s crowd gathered for the team watch party at Mercy Field let out a celebratory cheer, while a lone cowbell clanged near the third base dugout.
"The whole key to it is that we’ve been playing playoff baseball for the past two weeks,” Montgomery said. “Every game has been of the utmost importance, and these guys have been focused. You could see it on the ride over today on the bus. Everybody was focused, and they knew what they had to do. Somehow, we figured out a way to advance.”
With the win, the Explorers move on to the best-of-five South Division Championship Series. The winner of that series will then play in the best-of-five American Association Finals, beginning on Sept. 17.
“I always say ‘it’s harder to get in it than it is to win it,” Montgomery said. “It’s a race to six now. You’ve just got to play .600 baseball from here on out. Find a way to get six wins.”
Wednesday’s victory guaranteed the X’s at least one more home game this season. The team will play the first two games of the Division Championship Series on Friday and Saturday in Kansas City, before returning to Sioux City on Monday for Game 3.
“With the fans, I hope they come out and pack the place,” Montgomery said. “It’s playoff baseball, it’s what the guys have been working for all year. Hopefully, the city comes out and supports us.”
Harris named defensive PoY
The American Association announced Thursday that Chase Harris won the defensive player of the year award.