Game 1 of the American Association Championship looked like it wasn’t going to be much of game at all. By the eighth inning the Wichita Wingnuts had a 10-0 lead and starter Tim Brown looked absolutely unhittable. It looked like Wichita would coast into a 1-o lead over their neighbors to the north, the Lincoln Saltdogs, but then Brown was taken out of the game and the contest completely changed.
For the Wingnuts a lot of things started out well that had to make them feel really good about their chances. Ryan Khoury led off the game with a single. He hit .133 in the series against Laredo, so him getting off to a fast start was exactly the kind of shot-in-the-arm the team needed to get this night rolling. Khoury stole second base and scored one out later when David Espinosa drove him home with a sacrifice fly to center field. It was the kind of manufactured run the team had been used to all season, and gave them a quick 1-0 lead.
In the third inning the Wingnuts would get on the board again, and it was Khoury at the center of the rally. Jake Luce led off with a walk, and Khoury followed by drawing a free pass himself. Chris McClendon then laid down a perfect bunt that sent both runners into scoring position. Espinosa came to the plate and on a 1-1 pitch laid down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt that plated Luce and extended the lead to 2-0. For Espinosa, he had two RBI already, and didn’t even have an official at-bat yet.
The fourth inning saw the Wingnuts drive home another run. Abel Nieves walked to lead-off the inning. Carlo Testa hit into a fielder’s choice, and with Victor Diaz at the plate he stole second. After Diaz flew out, Chris McMurray singled to score Testa and make the lead 3-0.
Saltdogs starter Marquis Fleming was struggling all night, and in the fifth the roof came down around him. Khoury walked to lead-off the inning, the third time he had reached base in the game. One out later Khoury stole his second base of the night, and Espinosa was walked. That brought American Association MVP Brent Clevlen to the plate, and he delivered like an MVP, blasting a 3-2 pitch for a three-run home run and a 6-0 Wingnuts lead.
The sixth inning saw more of the same. McMurray and Khoury drew walks to put runners at first and second with one out. McClendon grounded to first to move both runners into scoring position, and that brought Espinosa to the plate. He had been to the plate three times already this night, had a run and two RBI and didn’t even have an official at-bat. This time to the plate he would get that official at-bat, and he would get it in a big way, hitting an 0-2 pitch from Fleming for a three-run home run, and giving the South Division Champions a 9-0 lead. For Espinosa he had five RBI, and was the hitting force driving the Wingnuts toward a Game 1 win.
In the seventh with Jake Meiers on the hill for Lincoln, the Wingnuts would get one more run to add to their lead. With two outs, Luce singled and Khoury followed with his second hit of the game. McClendon then doubled to score Luce, and the lead was 10.
While the Wingnuts were hammering the ball at the plate, starter Tim Brown was brining it on the hill. After a two out single in the third, Brown retired the next 11 before giving up a single with two outs in the seventh. The Wingnuts starter was absolutely dominant, giving up just three hits in seven innings, walking one, while striking out three. He truly was a force on the mound, and when he left after seven innings, it clearly looked like the game was over.
It may have looked that way to most, but to the Saltdogs themselves. They have no quit in them, and in the bottom of the eighth they went to work with Matthew Robertson on the hill. Brian Pinckney walked to lead-off the inning, and Mike Gilmartin reached base on an error. Tyler Smith then singled to load the bases and bring Chad Mozingo to the plate. The Saltdogs DH worked the count to 2-2 before crushing a Robertson pitch for a grand slam, putting Lincoln on the board. Luis Nunez and Matt Forgatch followed with singles, and Robertson’s night was over. He left facing six batters, retiring none, and the Wingnuts turned to Daniel Bennett.
The first batter Bennett faced was hot hitting Ian Gac, who led the league in home runs this season. With both runners in scoring position, he singled to score them both and cut the lead to four. Brian Joynt continued his outstanding playoff run with a base hit, and two outs later Gac would score to cut the deficit to just three. It was an absolutely awesome inning for the Saltdogs that saw them send 12 men to the plate, score seven, and put them right back into the game.
In the ninth the Wingnuts would add to their lead, and they would use one of their most frequently implemented means to deplete an opponent’s momentum – the two out rally. David Amberson walked and Jared McDonald followed with a single. Both hitters had come in as replacements when the lead was 10-0, but they proved the players coming off the bench carry a big stick as well. Nieves then walked to load the bases, and Testa followed with a shallow single to score Amberson and make it an 11-7 game.
Wingnuts Manager Kevin Hooper turned to Chase Johnson in the ninth and he delivered, retiring the Saltdogs in order and preserving the victory. For Johnson it was his third appearance of the playoffs, and he has yet to allow a base runner.
On the offensive end, the Wingnuts recorded 15 hits, with Khoury, Espinosa and Testa having the biggest night. Khoury finished the evening with two hits, three walks and three runs scored. Espinosa was 1-1, with two runs, 5 RBI and the big three run home run. Testa had three hits, scored a run and drove in two others. The three played a part in every rally the Wingnuts had this night, and helped stake the team to the 1-0 series lead.
Game 2 will be in Lincoln again tomorrow night. It will be a battle of left-handers as Saltdogs’ starter Kevin McGovern squares off against the Wingnuts Anthony Capra.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA