The Texas AirHogs have been playing exceptionally well this season, despite having only one victory entering Thursday morning’s contest. They could have easily won the first three games of the series against the St. Paul Saints, but the Saints managed to find a way to battle back and win each time, and it looked like they would do so again on this day, but a head’s up play by Chu Fujia allowed him to score the winning run in the 11th as the AirHogs were victorious, 7-6.
The St. Paul Saints took the lead in the top of the first against AirHogs starter Tyler Matzek. Matzek retired the first batter of the inning, but walked Max Murphy to bring Brady Shoemaker to the plate. The Saints DH drilled a ball that hit off the first base bag and straight up into the air. Texas first baseman Chu Fujia could not find the ball, allowing Shoemaker to reach. Jayce Boyd then grounded a ball up the middle for a single to score Murphy and it was 1-0. Noah Perio, Jr. drew a walk to load the bases, and it looked like Matzek would get out of the inning when Richard Prigatano followed with a ground ball back to Matzek. He threw home for the first out, but Ryan Wagner had trouble with the transfer from his glove to keep the bases loaded with two outs. Dante Bichette, Jr. drew a walk to drive in Boyd and the lead was two. Matzek was able to get out of the frame without any further damage, striking out Kes Carter to end the inning.
Texas would get one of those runs back in the bottom half of the inning. Chu Fujia was hit by Jeff Malm with one down. It is the third time that Chu has been hit this season. Two batters later, Stewart Ijames showed a great piece of hitting, fighting off a pitch in on and his hands and blooping it over Perio’s head and into shallow left-center for a single that scored Chu. That made it 2-1.
A three run fifth moved the Saints lead to four in the fifth. Back-to-back walks to Perio and Prigatano started the frame and Perio came home on an RBI single by Bichette. Kes Carter moved both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice. He narrowly missed reaching and didn’t only because of an acrobatic play by Chu at first to reach out and tag Carter trying to leap over him. J.J. Gould followed with a single that brought home Prigatano and Allen brought home Bichette in when he grounded into a fielder’s choice.
After giving up the run in the first, Malm pitched well over the next three innings, allowing just one hit, but the wheels came off in the fifth. Meng Weiqiang started the inning with a triple into the gap in right-center, and Song Yunqi followed with a triple of his own to make it 5-2. Luo Jinjin followed with a base hit that brought home Song before Golson singled to put two on with no one out. Chu lined a single into center that scored Luo to make it a one run game with the dangerous Dillon Thomas coming to the plate. He blasted a shot that just hooked foul before grounding out to move both runners up a base. Stewart Ijames was walked and that ended the day for Malm.
With the bases loaded, Jeff Matthys came on. He hit Ryan Wagner to drive in the tying run, then walked Chen Chen on five pitches to give the Texas AirHogs the lead. The bases were still loaded, but Matthys was able to get out of it by inducing Meng to hit into a double-play to end the inning. However, the AirHogs led 6-5.
The Saints looked to respond in the top of the sixth. Boyd led off with a double. Yang Yanyong retired the next two batters, but then walked Bichette. Tu Jialun came on and walked Carter and the bases were loaded with two down. That brought a call to the pen again, as Zheng Chaoqun came on, striking out Gould to end the threat.
The AirHogs bullpen took over from there. Zheng tossed 1.1-innings of relief, allowing a lone hit to Josh Allen and he was thrown out trying to steal. Taylor Wright came on in the eighth and struck out the side.
He remained in the ninth and breezed through the first two batters, striking out Carter for his fourth strike out of the game. However, Gould turned on an 0-1 pitch, lining it just over the left field wall for his first homer of the year to tie the score. Allen followed with a single to left, but Wright struck out Murphy to end the inning.
In the bottom of the ninth, the AirHogs would threaten. Mike Devine retired the first two batters, but Chu kept the inning alive, fouling off five pitches before blooping a single into center. Thomas looked like he had won it when he drilled a ball deep to right-center that bounced off the turf. Chu would have easily scored, but the ball bounced over the fence for a ground rule double, sending Chu back to third. Ijames was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Devine would get Wagner to fly out to end the threat, sending the contest to extra innings for the third straight game.
In the bottom of the 11th, the Texas AirHogs would finally pull out the victory. Chu led off with his third hit of the game and advanced to second with a stolen base. With two down and Chu still at second, Wagner grounded into the hole between short and second. Perio made a great play to get to the ball, then fired to first, but not in time to beat Wagner. Chu continued to round third and head home, beating the throw to the plate to give Texas the 7-6 victory.
Chu Fujia finished 3-5 with 3-runs and an RBI for the AirgHogs. Song Yunqi was 3-5 with a run and an RBI. The St. Paul Saints were led by Dante Bichette, Jr. who was 2-4 with a run and 2-RBI.
St. Paul will travel down the road to Cleburne to take on the Railroaders in a three-game series starting Friday night. First Pitch is scheduled for 7:05.
By Robert Pannier