The Wichita Wingnuts had already two outstanding performances from their starting pitchers in the first two games of their three-game series against the Grand Prairie AirHogs. Friday night Anthony Capra returned from the disabled list with seven scoreless innings, and Saturday Tim Brown pitched six innings, giving up just one unearned run in earning his ninth win of the year. Jon Link was the third “instructor” the team would send to the hill in the series, and let’s just say, he taught a master’s degree level course on how to pitch.
Dr. Link got right into his instruction from the moment he took the mound. With one out in the first he gave up a single to Alex Nunez. Abel Nieves came to the plate and became the first of Link’s 16 strikeouts on the day, going down swinging. Jason Botts then walked, but Brian Myrow would become victim No. 2, also going down swinging.
In the second Link would strike out the side on 17 pitches. All would go down swinging, giving Dr. Link five strikeouts through the first two innings of the game.
The third inning would bring another 1-2-3 frame with all three batters striking out swinging. Not only was Link up to eight strikeouts at this point, but he had struck out the last seven batters. Clearly he was on top of his game, and the AirHogs hitters had no answer for his command.
In the fourth Dr. Link finally had to rely on his fielders to help him out. At least a little. Nieves led off the inning with a ground ball to second baseman Taylor Oldham who fired to first for the first out of the inning. Then it was time for Link to take back over. He struck out Botts on five pitches, then finally gave up his first base runner since the first inning of the game when Brian Myrow singled. No problem for the righty. He simply blew away Carter on three pitches to end any threat.
In the fifth two more batters went down on strikes and the count was up to 12 for the game. In the sixth two more went down, and his count was at 14. In the seventh he would get two more, including Carter who struck out against Link three times in the game. Dr, Link has struck out 16 batters, setting a new Wingnuts record for a game. Every AirHogs batter had struck out at least once, and five had struck out twice. It was a dominant performance of two hit, one walk baseball, which was arguably the best game of his career.
Link would leave the game in the eighth, being one short of the American Association record for strikeouts in one game. While he had been dominant, the high number of strikeouts also meant a high pitch count. 114 pitches in seven innings was all the work that Manager Kevin Hooper was going to allow and so the game was turned over to Mike Zouzalik.
It was a good thing that Link had pitched so well, because in the other dugout was a guy having equally as impressive a night. Danny Gutierrez started for the AirHogs and kept them in the game with an outstanding performance. He breezed through the first two innings. In the third he gave up a lead-off walk to Jared McDonald, who Wichita had acquired from St. Paul the previous day. With Taylor Oldham batting McDonald stole second base, his second steal of the season. After Oldham was retired, Ryan Khoury then came to the plate and on a 1-2 pitch McDonald grabbed his third stolen base of the year. Khoury then lofted a flyball to the left fielder that scored McDonald, and the score was 1-0 Wichita.
The Wingnuts scored one run off of no-hits. It was a great effort to manufacture the run, however, it would be the last run that Gutierrez would allow. The AirHogs righty matched Link pitch-for-pitch after that. He didn’t have the big strikeout numbers that Link had, but one thing he could claim that Link could not – a no-hitter. Despite giving up the run, the Wingnuts scored without a hit. They would not record a hit in the game until Oldham finally broke it up in the eight with a two-0ut double. Link’s dominant performance became essential, because the AirHogs starter was totally handcuffing the Wichita hitters.
As well as both pitchers performed, neither would factor in the decision. In the top of the eighth the AirHogs finally got on the board when David Espinosa let a ball slide under his glove allowing the tying run to score. The error cost Link his 12th win of the year, and left the Wingnuts in jeopardy of losing the game.
However, Espinosa had a lesson of his own to teach this night – “I giveth and I taketh away.” After giving Grand Prairie life in the eighth he crushed them in the ninth. With TyRelle Harris on the hill, Espinosa led off the bottom half of the ninth inning. He took two quick balls, moving the count to 2-0, and then crushed Harris’ next offering for a walk-off homer and a 2-1 Wingnuts win. The first baseman’s fifth home run of the year was incredible atonement for his earlier mistake, and gave the Wingnuts a sweep of Grand Prairie.
Mike Zouzlik had his scoreless appearance streak snapped at ten games because of the unearned run, but he finished with the win to move to 3-o on the season.
The Wingnuts will now play a three-game series against the Lincoln Saltdogs at home starting Monday. The Saltdogs are the leaders in the Central Division and took two of three from Wichita at home last week.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA