The Winnipeg Goldeyes are being schooled on the fundamentals of baseball. The problem is that they are having to lose to learn those lessons. For the third night in a row the Wichita Wingnuts defeated the Goldeyes, precariously leaving the North Division leaders on the verge of dropping out of first.
The Goldeyes lost their third straight game and sixth in their last ten. They are a team in need of learning how to play like a first place leader. Across the diamond is a team that clearly understands how to win and to crush the hopes of teams chasing them in the standings. The master was in full teaching mode today, and left Winnipeg with a whole curriculum to learn.
Lesson 1: Have a Great Set of Table-Setters
Getting Ryan Khoury out is a challenge enough in itself, but adding Jake Kahaulelio to the mix makes this the toughest lineup in the league to contend with. Khoury not only can hit, but do it with power and steal bases. His .327 average ranks 14th in the league, and he leads the American Association with a .444 on-base percentage. The fact that he is constantly on-base has meant that the team has plenty of chances to drive him home and this is why he leads the league in runs scored with 68. What adds to him as a threat is that he is second in the league with 27 stolen bases and he will go deep as well, blasting 10 home runs.
While Khoury is having an absolutely awesome year, so is his double-play mate. Kahaulelio is 12th in the league in hitting, 13th in runs scored (52), 14th in OBP (.401), and he is fourth in the league with 25 doubles. The second baseman has been on a tear of late, hitting in each of his last six games at a .444 clip (12-27), with six runs and seven RBI during the span.
The two “teachers” provided a typical lesson for Winnipeg tonight. Khoury was 1-3, with two runs and an RBI. His solo home run temporarily put the Wingnuts in front in the sixth, and he walked in the eighth ahead of the two-run double that put Wichita in front to stay. And who had the two-run double that gave Wichita the lead? Who else but Jake Kahaulelio? His big double ended a tie game and gave the team a lead they would not relinquish.
Lesson 2: Get Quality Starting Pitching
Frank Del Valle didn’t dominate Winnipeg, but he didn’t let them crush him either. He gave up just two runs, despite allowing nine base runners (six hits and three walks) in six innings. He was in trouble at times, but he didn’t allow one run to become four or five. He limited the damage to himself, and kept his team in the game.
Lesson 3: Let Your Star Do His Thing
While the Wingnuts have an array of great hitters, there is none better than Brent Clevlen, and he had another big night for the team. He had two hits, including his 15th home run of the year, and he continues to play stellar defense in centerfield.
Clevlen is not just a great hitter for the team; he is a dominant one. Professor Clevlen works counts, demonstrated by his 40 walks which makes him second in the league with a .433 OBP. He is among the league leaders in virtually every statistical category, including home runs (4th), RBI (2nd), runs scored (4th), walks (9th) and average (3rd). Since the All-Star break he has hit in eight of 10 games, at a 19-39 (.487) clip. He is at Dean of the team, and makes opponents pay for the mistakes they make against him.
Lesson 4: Hire a Manager Who Knows How to Guide Well
Kevin Hooper isn’t just a good manager; he is the best one in the American Association. Many in the front office of other clubs talk about how if they had their choice as manager for their team, it would be Hooper, and why not? He knows how to get the most from his team, and his players respond to him.
Take last week Friday’s game against St. Paul as our first lesson. Jon Link began to struggle into the middle innings. In the sixth, Link had an 8-1 lead. Quickly that lead became 8-4, and there were runners on first and third with just one out, and Jake Taylor was coming to the plate, who had crushed a Link offering earlier in the game. Hooper came out to talk to Link, but not to pull him. In fact, he didn’t even have another pitcher up in the bullpen. He came out to just talk with his starter and let him know that he had confidence that the righty could close out the inning. Link struck out Taylor and Jared McDonald and the rally was over.
This is what separates the Wichita Manager from the rest. He will pull a guy when it is time, but he will also show confidence which is generally rewarded. The Chancellor of Wingnuts University puts on a clinic each night of how to manage and this is why his team is 9-1 in their last 10.
Lesson 5: Respond When Needed
The one thing that really separates Wichita from virtually every team in the league is that when it is time to score, they do so. If a team got three in the bottom half of the third inning, you can be sure that the Wingnuts will get at least two in the top of the fourth. If they are trailing by two and get two runners on with two outs, count on the next batter doubling to bring home both of those runners. They simply do not let teams get comfortable with the fact that they are leading.
Tonight was no different. Winnipeg gets a run that ties the game up in the bottom of the seventh inning. So how do the Wingnuts respond? They get two in the top of the eighth, and they do it with two outs. In fact, their entire rally came with two outs. Jake Luce doubles to right field, Khoury walks and then on a 1-0 pitch Kahaulelio doubles to score both.
They don’t just beat you; they tear your heart out. They make you think you are going to win or get out of an inning unscathed and then they crush you. They did this tonight, and they have done this game after game all season. This is one of the major lessons Winnipeg must learn if they expect to compete. In fact, it is worth 40 percent of their overall grade.
Lesson 6: Close the Door When You Have the Chance
The last lesson is the one that no other team seems to do against the masters, but which they do quite well themselves. When they have the lead, they keep it. Relievers like Alex Hinshaw, Daniel Bennett and Mike Zouzalik do the job each and every night to keep this team in games, and to get meaningful wins.
Consider that at one point this week the Wingnuts won three of four games late. Bennett got the win in every one of those games. Zouzalik picked up the win tonight with a perfect seventh inning of work. They simply do what they are asked to do.
Of course when it is time to crush the hopes and dreams of opponents that they will mount a dramatic ninth inning comeback, no one does that better than Dr. Matt Nevarez. The Doctor pitched a perfect ninth for his 22nd save of the season, and he has an amazing 1.63 ERA now. Nevarez has given up a run in just one of his last 12 appearances and two of his last 34!! That is just awesome, and tells opponents that they are about to be taught a lesson – the hard way.
School was in session tonight in Winnipeg, but the Goldeyes look like they need a few more lessons before they can even consider trying to emulate the masters. The two teams play again tomorrow, and one thing will be for sure – more lessons will be provided.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Baseball Editor
Member of the IBWAA