The top two teams in the American Association squared off in St. Paul Monday night, as the Sioux City Explorers (22-7) came to Minnesota to do battle with the St. Paul Saints (24-5). It was a battle royal as these two heavyweights squared off in the early season clash.
Call it the “Cage Match at CHS,” or the “Showdown in St. Paul.” This was a chance for both teams to make a statement about who the league’s top dog is, and the Saints won round 1 behind a brilliant performance by left-hander Kramer Sneed, downing the Explorers 5-4.
The Sioux Explorers wound up throwing the first punch. In the bottom of the first, Michael Lang reached on an error with one out and advanced to second when Rene Tosoni popped up a pitch about 15 feet from home plate. No one could figure out who was going to make the catch and it dropped in for a single. Two batters later Noah Perio popped up a pitch to first that should have ended the inning, but that catch was not made. The error allowed both runners to score to make it 2-0 Explorers.
In the bottom of the first the Saints jabbed right back. With one out Steve Nikorak lined a Jeff Marquez pitch to the wall in left-center field and raced around to third with a triple. Vinny DiFazio was up next and made up for his first inning miscue by lining a single into center field to make it 2-1.
Sneed was down by a run and needed to keep Sioux City off the scoreboard so his team could get him the runs he needed. “We had a couple of fluky plays in the first, but I knew that we can battle back; we’ve done it all season, so I just needed to keep pounding the strike zone and give my offense a chance,” the left-hander explained after the game.
Sneed responded over the next seven innings. He allowed only four singles and a hit by pitch over the next seven frames, but got two double-plays to end two of those threats. One of those came on a spectacular play by center fielder Mitch Elliot in the eighth. Sneed hit Matty Johnson with one out and a single by Lang moved Johnson to second. That brought up Tosoni who hit a fly ball to Elliot that was caught about 30 feet from the warning track. Johnson tagged and raced for third, but Elliot made a perfect throw to the third baseman, beating Johnson there to record the tag.
Sneed trusted that if he kept the Explorers off the scoreboard his offense would get him the runs he needed. He simply needed to keep jabbing, keeping their offense off balance, so the Saints offense could bring the big knockout blow to give him the lead.
In the bottom of the fourth the St. Paul Saints tied the score. Angelo Songco doubled to lead-off the inning. Two batters later Joey Paciorek grounded a ball to the Sioux Falls shortstop. He fired a throw to first, but didn’t seem to get much on the throw. That forced it to bounce in the dirt and into the stands, allowing Songco to come around and score to tie the game on the error.
In the fifth that big knockout blow came. Mitch Elliot started the inning with a little jab, pounding a ball into the dirt. Marquez leapt off the mound looking to make the play, but he had no chance to get the speedy Elliot. Another jab by Nikorak came next. He grounded a ball down to third and beat it out for another single. That made it first and second with no one out and the incredibly hot Vinny DiFazio coming to the plate. The Saints slugger took a first pitch ball, then ripped one over the left field fence for a three-run homer.
DiFazio has been unbelievably hot of late. He was 2-4 in the game with a run and 4 RBI. His home run was his seventh of the season, second in the American Association, and he extended two hitting streaks. DiFazio has now hit in 11 straight games and has had at least two hits in 10 straight games. A truly remarkable stretch.
Up 5-2, the Saints just leaned on their starter to take them home. Sneed did his job masterfully, but in the ninth manager George Tsamis turned to his bullpen.
Ryan Rodebaugh came on in the ninth to close it out, but got in a little trouble. The closer struck out Brock Kjeldgaard then walked Perio. Ryan Court followed with a double that scored Perio. Rodebaugh got Tommy Mendonca to fly out, but a single by Matt Koch put runners at the corners with two outs.
Tsamis had seen enough, opting to go with left-hander Dylan Chavez to face Tim Colwell. A wild pitch brought Court in to make it 5-4, but Chavez got Colwell to pop out to end the game.
Sneed (5-1) pitched 8 outstanding innings, allowing just 5 hits and 2 unearned runs. He struck out 2 and his five wins are now tied for first in the American Association. Chavez recorded his first save of the season. Marquez (4-2) took the loss.
By Robert Pannier