You have to hand it Wichita Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper. The President of Wingnuts University understands how to make a bad situation turn into a good one, a good one into a great one, and a great one into an historic one.
Last season he pushed all the right buttons in leading the club to an American Association League record 73-wins on their way to the first championship in team history. This past off-season he had to completely rebuild the starting lineup due to retirements and trades. That left him with just one player (David Espinosa) from last season’s everyday batting order, and two of his key acquisitions from this off-season did not pan out. That has often pushed the Wingnuts Skipper’s baseball intelligence to the limit but, fortunately for the club, there seems to be no limit to what Kevin Hooper can conjure up.
Seven games into the season the Wichita Wingnuts were 5-2. The only blemishes came on the very first game of the season and on its seventh when the Grand Prairie AirHogs rallied late to win 3-2 in 10. His pitching staff had allowed just one run in three games against the Winnipeg Goldeyes, and 16 overall in those seven games. It was an impressive start.
However, Hooper was not thrilled with the production of his offense. While scoring 18 runs in the three games at Joplin, they had put up just nine in the first four games of their home stand. The Wichita manager decided to make a serious change to the lineup despite the .714 winning percentage.
Five games later the club has scored 26 runs, including eight in Thursday’s 8-2 win over the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. A new order has brought a new chemistry to the lineup and it is showing at the plate and on the scoreboard.
For the third straight game the Wingnuts scored four early runs to jump out on top of the RedHawks. In the first game they lead 4-0 before allowing Fargo to tie the game and win in the ninth. In Game 2 they led 4-1 before allowing the home team to tie the score, then the Wingnuts won in the ninth. In this game there was going to be no late game heroics for either team, as Wichita dominated behind starter Tim Brown.
The Wingnuts jumped out in front in the top of the first by plating four runs. Jayce Ray led off with a single and moved to second on a wild pitch. A single by Espinosa put runners at the corners with one out, and a wild pitch brought Ray into score while moving Espinosa to third. John Nester followed with a single, plating Espinosa and it was 2-0 four hitters into the contest. A TJ Mittelstaedt double moved Nester to third, and Alberto Gonzalez followed with a ground out to score Nester. Brent Dean stepped to the plate and laid down a perfect bunt he beat out for a single. An error by the RedHawks third baseman on the play allowed Mittelstaedt to score, and coming out of the first inning the Wichita Wingnuts had the 4-0 lead.
Brown retired the Fargo lineup in order through the first two innings, but in the third the home team scored a run. Joe Staley beat out an infield single and moved to third on a double by Charlie Valerio. This inning had all the makings of a big RedHawks rally, something the Wingnuts had seen occur the two previous nights, but Brown showed why he is one of the best starters in the league. A sacrifice fly by Zach Penprase scored Staley, but no others would score and Wichita led 4-1 after three.
In the fifth the visitors added three more runs to their lead. Gonzalez reached on an error and moved to third on single by Dean and an error by the RedHawks right fielder, who misplayed the ball allowing both runners to move into scoring position. Dustin Geiger singled to score Gonzalez, and Taylor Oldham followed with a double to the wall that brought both runners home. That made the score 7-1.
No Fargo comeback was going to occur in this game, as Brown continued to dominate. The righty retired the RedHawks in order in the fourth and fifth innings. In the sixth they got back-to-back singles with one out, but Brown struck out the final two batters of the inning to keep the score 7-1. In the seventh he allowed two hits with two outs but, again, struck out the final batter of the inning to end the threat.
Brown (2-0) finished with 6 hits and 1 run allowed in seven innings of work. He also struck out 6 and his ERA stands at 0.90, third best in the American Association.
In the sixth Wichita added one more run. With Jonathan Chudy on the hill for Fargo-Moorhead, Espinosa walked. Three batters later Gonzalez singled and Dean drove Espinosa home with a single to make it 8-1.
The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks plated a run in the eighth off of Al Yevoli. Frank Salerno doubled with one out and scored on a ground out by Drew Muren. That would be all the runs that the RedHawks could muster, as they fell 8-2.
Dean had a huge day at the plate for the Wichita Wingnuts, going 4-5 with a run and 2 RBI. In the three-game series with Fargo he went 8-15. He now stands at .388, fifth best in the league.
By Robert Pannier
Follow the Wichita Wingnuts season with Short Hops with Kevin Hooper. This show gives you, the fans, the opportunity to gain insights from the club’s Skipper.