SIOUX CITY – These so-called “dog days” aren’t turning out to be so bad since the Sioux City Explorers snapped out of a franchise-record losing streak.
Playing the spoiler against an American Association playoff contender, the X’s took advantage of three errors to squeeze out a 6-5 win Monday night to open a four-game series with the Kansas City T-Bones.
It was the third win in a row for the Explorers and the team’s fourth in five games since an 11-inning win last Thursday in Winnipeg brought an end to a frustrating 10-game skid.
“The biggest thing was getting the monkey off the back up in Winnipeg,’’ said fourth-year Sioux City Manager Steve Montgomery, whose team is now 43-50 with seven contests remaining on their 2017 schedule. “We’ve played some pretty good baseball since that. We’ve just relaxed, gone out and had fun, and we’ve been able to win four of five.’’
Kansas City, which came into the game in a tight three-team race for the league’s lone wild-card playoff berth, had been tied with Gary SouthShore for second place in the Central Division, each of them at 52-40, four games behind front-running Lincoln.
More importantly, the T-Bones and Gary were just one-half game in back of Fargo-Moorhead (52-39) for that wild-card slot. And, with Gary losing 2-1 on a walk-off homer in Sioux Falls, the two division rivals will likely enter play Tuesday one game behind the RedHawks, who appeared headed for a split of two seven-inning games with Lincoln.
At press time, Fargo-Moorhead, a 7-0 winner in Game 1, trailed 6-1 in the seventh inning of Game 2, which would put them at 53-40 with seven games to play. Gary and Kansas City are at 52-41.
Continuing to help fortify the Sioux City offense, LeVon Washington, followed a four-hit effort in Sunday’s 9-4 win in Lincoln with another three safeties, driving in three runs with a solo homer and a two-run double.
Meanwhile, veteran starter Kramer Sneed coasted into the sixth inning with a 6-1 advantage before feeling some discomfort that brought out the team trainer.
Kramer, the starter for a team-leading 11 wins this season, opted to stay in the game, giving up a walk, a stolen base and a two-out RBI single before an inning-ending strikeout.
Returning for the seventh inning, though, may have been a mistake. Tucker Pennell, hitting ninth in the order, drew a one-out walk and red-hot Cedric Hunter’s single, his fourth hit of the night, set the table for a three-run homer by Marcus Lemon.
The son of three-time American League All-Star Chet Lemon sent a towering moon shot over the wall just inside the right-field foul pole to suddenly slash the Sioux City lead to just 6-5.
Rookie reliever Ryan Flores, who has a team-high 86 strikeouts in just 71.1 innings, retired all five batters he faced, ringing up three on strikes. Then, it was closer P.J. Francescon working a 1-2-3 ninth, getting a game-ending grounder to the shortstop from Hunter, who spent part of last season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The T-Bones, seeking their first playoff berth in seven seasons since joining the league, cost themselves dearly with two errors on the same first-inning play, helping the X’s grab a quick 2-0 lead. Tony Campana walked on the game’s fifth pitch from starter Alex Blackford. Then, Michael Lang put down a bunt on which catcher Matt Chavez threw wildly and rightfielder Chantz Mack fumbled, letting Campana race home while Lang scooted to third.
“A big part of tonight’s game was taking your walks,’’ said Montgomery. “When we take our walks, we’re a pretty dangerous team because of our speed on the bases. It puts pressure on the pitcher to be quick to the plate and still make pitches. It gives our hitters better pitches to hit.’’
Washington hit .336 in 39 games after joining last year’s Explorers, but he didn’t hit any home runs. Monday’s bomb was his 11th of the season and his sixth in a 21-game spree that has seen him bat .432 (35 of 81), raising his average 47 points to .287.
The former first-round draft pick delivered his two-run double after Jayce Ray walked to lead off the home half of the fifth and then Lang moved him to third with a two-bagger into the left-field corner. Blackford wound up loading the bases, hitting one batter and walking another, but there were two outs when Chavez tried to throw behind Eudor Garcia at first base, uncorking another wild throw.
The third K.C. error let Washington scoot home with what proved to be the winning run. However, when the X’s gambled and Kelly also tried to score, he was thrown out at the plate, killing a rally that might have added some insurance.
Thanks to Flores and Francescon, retiring the last eight batters in order, it didn’t matter.