SIOUX CITY -- From here on out, there will be no easy pickings for the Sioux City Explorers, one of the strongest teams in the 13-year history of independent professional baseball’s American Association.
Wrapping up a dominating series sweep over the last-place Texas AirHogs, the playoff-bound X’s rebounded from an early 3-0 deficit to ring up a 14-3 victory Friday night at Lewis and Clark Park.
It was the fourth double-digit run total in the last five games for a Sioux City team that became just the fourth team to reach 70 wins since the league was formed in 2006.
“You’re the fourth team to win 70 games and it’s a credit to these gentlemen (the Explorers) and to this coaching staff and this organization,’’ said Manager Steve Montgomery, whose team improved to 70-27. “No one remembers who wins 70, though, they just remember who holds that thing (league championship trophy) at the end.’’
The Explorers closed out their home schedule with a 32-18 record, going 19-9 after a 13-9 start. Now, it will be five straight games on the road, where they have already matched their Association record for road wins with a phenomenal 38-9 ledger and three more contests at Wichita’s venerable Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
After that, the X’s will either remain in Wichita or travel north to Kansas City, Kan., to play the first two games of their best-of-five league semifinal on Tuesday and Wednesday. A travel day follows and then Game 3 will unfold Friday at Lewis and Clark, which would also host Games 4 and 5 if necessary.
And, the destination was looking more like Kansas City after the T-Bones (61-35) outslugged Wichita (59-38) in the finale to a key three-game series Wednesday night, prevailing 12-6. That left the Bones needing only one win in three road games in Gary or else one X’s victory in Wichita.
“I’m sure (the Wichita Wingnuts) don’t feel like they’re out of it,’’ said Montgomery. “Odds are stacked against ‘em, but they’re still playing for something and I hope our guys are still playing for something because there’s some personal goals that are attainable for some guys.’’
Catcher Dylan Kelly drove in three runs on two singles in as many at-bats while Nate Samson and Jake Schmit led a 17-hit attack with three hits apiece. Samson raised his league-leading batting average to .348 and is now an impressive 22 of 39 over his last eight games.
The big offensive show also featured three home runs as Jay Baum had a two-run shot in the third inning and then Dean Green and Daniel Jackson both went deep in sixth frame, Jackson’s blast with a runner on base.
It was another explosive outing for a team that had reached double-digits three games in a row -- just the fourth time in franchise history -- before managing just a 4-0 win with no less than 19 baserunners on Thursday night.
Then again, this one and a 14-0 blowout in Wednesday’s series opener all came at the expense of a Texas team that is now 25-72, easily the 12-team league’s worst record.
X’s lefthander Ian McKinney, a hard-luck 2-2 in eight previous starts since joining the team, had a rocky first inning that eventually limited him to a four-inning start. Surrendering three straight one-out singles and a bases-loaded walk, the southpaw managed to get out of the jam with only a 1-0 deficit. However, he piled up 39 pitches, which got him to 99 far too early.
Exiting with a 6-0 lead, McKinney didn’t qualify for the win in a game that saw the Explorers score four times in the fifth for a 10-3 lead and then add three more in the sixth and one in the seventh. Ryan Flores, the first of four relievers, went two shutout innings and was credited with a win that puts his record at 8-2, all out of the bullpen.
Montgomery said he’d send out his outstanding rookie righthander Justin Vernia for Saturday’s series opener in Wichita. Vernia leads the league in wins at 12-1 and his team has won all 18 of his starts since he dropped his season debut 4-3 in Lincoln on May 20.
“We have goals,’’ said Montgomery, referring to a possible league-record 39 road wins, which would eclipse the 2015 Explorers’ 38-12 showing away from Lewis and Clark Park. “That’s one of them. And, really, I’m not satisfied with 70 wins. You get greedy. Tomorrow (Saturday) is the most important game, just like always.’’
The 2015 X’s finished 75-25 for the league’s best record ever. That same year, the St. Paul Saints were 74-26 before losing a semifinal playoff series to Sioux City in four games. The only other 70-game winner has been Wichita, posting a 73-27 mark in 2014.