SIOUX CITY – The panic button was never pushed and the Sioux City Explorers simply went to work, digging themselves out of the big hole their early season struggles had produced.
Saddled with a 9-16 record one-fourth of the way through their 100-game American Association schedule, the X’s needed just 11 days to go from fifth in the South Division standings to a tie for first place.
They made it all the way back Saturday night, riding yet another outstanding pitching performance by Jason Garcia to a 6-1 victory over the Sioux Falls Canaries.
It was the 10th win in 11 games for Sioux City, improving to 19-17, while the Canaries fell to 18-16 with a fifth loss in a six-game span – a slide that included three setbacks in four home games against St. Paul’s North Division leaders.
Garcia, who was already the league’s only six-game winner, hiked his record to 7-1, which makes him 10-1 in 11 regular season starts since joining the Explorers last August. With seven shutout innings to follow Taylor Jordan’s complete-game shutout on Friday, the former Baltimore Orioles reliever chiseled his ERA to 2.36.
Three of the five hits allowed by Garcia came from No. 3 hitter Kevin Taylor, who wound up with four of seven total hits for the guests. And Sioux Falls, blanked only once in 33 games before Friday’s 4-0 loss in the series opener, entered play Saturday with a league-best .300 team batting average.
“With a team like that, you know they’re going to swing it, so just pitch to contact,’’ said Garcia. “Our defense is playing really good, so it’s just trusting the guys behind me. It was just believing in what we’ve got and believing in who were are.’’
The Birds avoided their first consecutive blankings when Trae Santos led off the top of the ninth with a homer to right-center field off Nate Gercken. They might have done more, too, if not for some defensive web gems from Adam Sasser and Michael Lang.
“We can’t rest on our laurels, but it’s a helluva job by those men (the Explorers) and by my coaching staff to not waver in what we believe in and how to win baseball games,’’ said X’s Manager Steve Montgomery. “Now, we’re starting to see the fruits of our labors. We’re starting to win some games. Our offense is starting to put up runs and we’re getting solid starting pitching.’’
Lang actually had two outstanding plays in right field while also breaking out of a career-worst 2-for-40 batting skid with three of the winners’ 12 hits.
“It was a relief, that’s for sure,’’ said Lang, the first position player to play seven seasons here. “You start seeing a couple of games go by in a row without getting a hit, even though you’re not thinking about it, it’s kind of in your head. What made some of those (hitless games) 10 times easier was we weren’t losing.’’
“Over the stretch of the 40 at-bats, he was hitting the ball hard and just hitting it at people,’’ said Montgomery of Lang. “Credit Michael for coming here with a positive attitude and coming here to work every day.’’
Three straight hits to start the bottom of the second put the X’s on top 2-0 early. Jose Sermo singled to left field, Dexture McCall reached on a bloop single and Adam Sasser followed with a run-scoring single. Drew Stankiewicz added a sacrifice fly and McCall trotted home with the second run.
Lefthander Will Solomon, released after a poor start to his fourth year with Fargo-Moorhead, cost himself the third Sioux City run after Lang blooped a base hit to center field. Mindful of Lang’s speed, Solomon whipped a wild pickoff throw to first base and Lang raced all the way to third. Nate Samson was robbed of a single on a sinking liner to center, snagged by Brett Vertigan, but it was good enough for a sacrifice fly and a 3-0 lead.
The X’s got nothing after putting runners at second and third with one out in the fourth frame, but back-to-back doubles by Samson and Sermo, leading off the fifth, made it a 4-0 game. Again, though, runners at second and third with one out were left on the diamond.
Nonetheless, the offense just kept on coming with another two runs in the sixth, widening the advantage to 6-0. One-out singles by Dylan Kelly and Kyle Wren set the tab and both runners scored with a single by Lang and a second sacrifice fly by Samson.