After being the runner-up the last two seasons in the American Association Championship series, this year the Wichita Wingnuts took home the title, claiming the best-of-five series with an 8-3 victory Saturday night. These Wingnuts were not going to be denied this season, as they swept the series, and claimed their sixth victory in seven playoff games.
The Wingnuts had everything in line to not only take home the championship, but to do it in front of their home crowd. After winning the first two games in Lincoln, the Wingnuts knew they had three chances at home. They knew they would have three chances to win the series at home. They had no intention of letting this series drag on any further, however, so they sent 12-game winner Jason Van Skike to the mound. Van Skike was perfect at home this season, going 8-0 during the regular season, and 1-0 in the playoffs up to that point.
Everyone may have thought that the situation was perfect for the sweep, but the Saltdogs had other ideas. They had one of their aces, Joe Bisenius, on the hill, and began the game by jumping on Van Skike. In the top of the first inning Lincoln showed they were here to play. Chad Mozingo led off with a double and Luis Nunez followed with a single to send Mozingo to third. That brought Forgatch to the plate who promptly singled to plate Mozingo and give the Saltdogs a 1-0 lead.
The inning had every indication that this was going to be a disastrous start for the Wingnuts, but the Wingnuts pitchers have consistently been stars at allowing hitters to reach base but not allowing the big inning to occur. This is what happened here. Three straight hits got the game started in the right way for Lincoln, but Van Skike then retired the next three in order, including home run champion Ian Gac, without allowing any further damage.
In the second, the Saltdogs added to their lead. Brandon Pinckney hit his first home run of the playoffs to lead off the inning, and then Mike Gilmartin walked and Tyler Smith singled to move Gilmartin to third. This had the makings of another possible disastrous inning, but Van Skike proved why he was one of the best pitchers in the league, getting Mozingo to fly out, scoring Gilmartin, and then retiring the next two batters to end the threat. After that Van Skike settled down.
For Lincoln, Bisenius cruised through the first with a 1-2-3 frame, but got into a little trouble in the second. With one out, Abel Nieves walked and advanced to second on a ground out by Carlo Testa. Chris McMurray walked on four pitches and David Amberson followed that with a single that scored Nieves, and cut the deficit to 3-1.
Bisenius held the Wingnuts bats in check in the third, but in the fourth they came alive. Nieves led off with a walk and one out later an error allowed McMurray to reach. Amberson struck out, but Jake Luce then singled to load the bases, and this had the feel of one of those great Wingnuts opponent spirit crushing rallies. It not only had that feeling, but actually came about. Ryan Khoury walked to score Nieves, and Chris McClendon followed with a single scoring McMurray and Luce, and giving Wichita a 4-3 lead.
In the fifth a Wingnuts staple came into play – the two out rally. Nieves walked and advanced to third on a single by Testa. McMurray then beat out an infield single to score Nieves. For Nieves it was an amazing night. He walked his first three times to the plate, and was the first guy to reach base in each of the three innings they had scored a run in.
In the sixth two more runs got on the scoreboard for Wichita. With one out Khoury reached base via the walk. McClendon then drew a walk as well to put runners at first and second with one out. That brought David Espinosa to the plate who laced the first pitch he saw from Bisenius into the gap to score Khoury and increase the lead to 6-3. Brent Clevlen then hit a sacrifice fly to right field scoring McClendon. The Saltdogs righty would get Nieves to ground out but his night was over.
The Winguts would add one more run in the eighth when Luce reached on an error by the left fielder and scored on a single by Khoury. The score was 8-3 at that point, and there was to be no rally this night.
Meanwhile, while the Wingnuts bats were coming alive, so was their pitching staff. Van Skike pitched through the fifth, keeping the Saltdogs off the scoreboard after the second. That then brought the same four relievers the team had used to close out Game 2. Chris Peacock allowed a walk in the sixth, but then retired the side. Mike Zouzalik took over in the seventh and gave up a one out double to Forgatch, but he too would allow no other runners to reach. In the eighth Chase Johnson gave up a one out single, then retired the side. Finally, closer Dan Sattler walked Nunez with one out, then struck out Forgatch and Gac to end the game and the series. Overall the bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out five.
Nieves finished the game with three runs scored, despite the fact that he did not have a hit in the game. Espinosa finished with three hits, and both Khoury and McClendon drove in two runs.
The three game sweep was an amazing conclusion to a record breaking season. The Wingnuts not only set a single-season record for wins with 73, but with the six playoff victories they moved the overall season total to 79, and won their first American Association championship. It was a remarkable season that should linger in the record books for years to come.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA