John Straka Sends St. Paul Saints into All-Star Break on Winning Note, 8-3
This has been a season of records for the St. Paul Saints so far. Robert Coe has tied the all-time franchise record for wins. Mark Hamburger has set the franchise record for complete games in a season and in a career. Sunday afternoon, the Saints had a chance to get a team record. For the first time in franchise history St. Paul won a four-game series in Lincoln, Nebraska. That came courtesy of right-hander John Straka, who blanked the Lincoln Saltdogs for seven innings in the team’s 7-0 victory. That moved the Saints to 47-22 entering the All-Star break.
Through the first two innings Straka and Lincoln starter Matt Larkins kept the game scoreless. Larkins entered the contest with the fourth lowest ERA in the American Association and so winning the final game of the series seemed like a tall order, especially after he allowed just two lone singles through the first two innings, but in the third Tony Thomas would change all of that.
The hot hitting Alonzo Harris led off the inning with a single and Brady Burzynski attempted to move him to second on a sacrifice. The ball was slightly popped up and Harris had to hold to see if Larkins would catch it. He did not and the ball dropped in. Harris was thrown out easily at second and Burzynski replaced him at first. Next up was Thomas, who drilled a 1-2 offering from Larkins the other way over the right field fence for his 11th homerun of the year. Thomas proved he deserved to be the replacement in the Home Run Derby Monday night, replacing injured teammate Angelo Songco.
In the fourth, Larkins retired the first two hitters of the inning, but an error by the third baseman allowed Tanner Vavra to reach first. Harris followed by hitting a ball to left field that was dropped and Vavra scored. Burzynski’s single scored Harris and the game was a 4-0 Saints lead.
It would stay that way until the sixth when the St. Paul Saints would blow the game open. Breland Almadova singled with one out to extend his hitting streak to nine-games. Vavra followed with a base hit that moved Almadova to third and he scored on a wild pitch. Harris then singled to move Vavra to third and Burzynski’s sacrifice fly scored Vavra to make it 6-0. A single by Tony Thomas scored Harris and gave him his third RBI on the afternoon.
That was way more than enough support for Straka. The right-hander allowed a single to start the third, but then got a double-play grounder to erase the runner. In the sixth he gave up both of the walks he would allow on the afternoon, but got a fielder’s choice and a fly ball out to end the threat. His only other hit allowed came to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but he induced another double-play to end the threat. Straka (9-3) pitched 7-innings, allowing 2-hits, 2-walks and no earned runs. He also struck out 7.
Corey Williams came on for the Saints in the eighth and retired the side in order.
In the top of the ninth the Saints added one more insurance run. The Saltdogs’ reliever retired the first two batters of the inning, but Tony Caldwell turned on a 2-2 pitch and drilled it for a solo homerun, his 10th of the year.
In the ninth, Gene Escat came on but he could not keep the shutout intact. He walked the first two batters of the inning, but looked like he might escape without any damage, however, a comebacker by Freddy Flores was thrown away by Escat trying to throw to second to start the double-play and Robby Kuzdale scored. He then gave up back-to-back singles to Rene Leveret and Curt Smith, with Smith’s single scoring Luis Alen to cut the lead to 8-2. The bases were still loaded and there was no one out.
Manager George Tsamis had seen enough and turned to Benji Waite. He would walk Ryan Wiggins to plate another run and suddenly the tying run was on-deck. That brought one more call to the pen, and Caleb Thielbar came on. The lefty was dominant, retiring the first two batters on strikeouts, before getting a groundout for his third save of the season.
Thomas had the big bat on the day, going 3-5 with a run and 3-RBI. Harris went 3-6 with 2-runs scored. That extended Harris’ hitting streak to eight-games and moved his average to .310. Leveret finished 2-4 for the Saltdogs.
Both teams head into the All-Star break. The Saints now lead their division by 8-games while the Lincoln Saltdogs are 3.5 ahead of Gary Southshore.
By Robert Pannier