SIOUX CITY -- No doubt about it, the Wichita Wingnuts have tweaked their roster just enough to become an American Association championship contender.
Nonetheless, the bigger issue raised Wednesday night by the Wingnuts’ 10-5 victory over the league-leading Sioux City Explorers was whether or not the X’s can get back on track after losing the first three games of a key nine-game homestand.
Swept in a three-game series with the league’s third winningest team, Manager Steve Montgomery’s team has lost three in a row for the first time and now face a four-game series here against their closest challenger, the Kansas City T-Bones.
Sitting 9.5 games ahead of the T-Bones and 12 up on Wichita prior to the series opener on Monday, a 56-17 Sioux City record has now dropped to 56-20.
That’s still an impressive mark to be sure. However, those robust advantages in the standings have quickly started looking less insurmountable at 6.5 over the T-Bones (49-26) and nine games over the Wingnuts (47-29).
“It’s crazy how it can evaporate pretty quickly,’’ said Montgomery, seemingly unperturbed after being tossed along with shortstop Nate Samson in the ninth inning. “(Wichita) came in, they showed the ability to make some adjustments to what we have done to ‘em at the plate and to how they’re pitching us.
“You just tip your cap and move on to the next series. We’ve just gotta get back to playing winning baseball and that’s all we can do.’’
A day after learning they had lost major league veteran Taylor Jordan, their ace starter, to a team in Taiwan, the Explorers turned to Keith Picht, who had pitched twice in relief since getting bumped from the rotation.
Unlike his most recent start on July 19, when he limited St. Paul to one run in a 5-2 win, Picht left too many pitches in the hitting zone. And the Wingnuts, a dangerous team with the recent additions of three new regulars, seized their opportunities.
Surrendering doubles to four of the first 11 batters he faced, Picht was rocked for three runs in each of the first two innings, spotting the visitors a quick 6-0 lead.
Lefthander Scott Harman, meanwhile, continued Wichita’s dominance of the X’s league-leading offense, getting help from an inning-ending triple play in the fourth inning to limit them to one run on three hits through five frames.
Trailing 7-1, the Explorers showed signs of life in the sixth inning, plating three runs with two walks before an RBI single by Blake Schmit and a two-run triple by Dexture McCall.
A major momentum shift seemed to be taking place after the first two Sioux City batters in the seventh rapped singles. That rally fizzled, though, as reliever Scott Kuzminsky coaxed consecutive pop-ups by the X’s Number 2, 3 and 4 hitters. Then, the Wingnuts blew it back open with three runs in the top of the eighth, getting help when Ryan Flores took over following two one-out singles of Dominic Topoozian.
Flores, one shy of a league record when he hit 17 batters last season, plunked the first man he faced and then walked the second to force in a run. Two more scored on a groundout and a base hit by Tony Thomas. It was the fourth RBI of the night for Thomas, who ripped a two-run double and belted a league-leading 19th homer.
The Wingnuts offense was also bolstered by a career night from shortstop Leo Vargas, collecting his first four-hit game of the season. They also got another three hits from second baseman Logan Watkins, whois a remarkable 24 of 44 in nine games against Sioux City.
A couple of positives lost in the gloom for the X’s were Topoosian, a recent addition who pitched well in 4.2 innings, and a three-hit, three-RBI performance from McCall.