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Ben Smith

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Winning the hardest lesson for youngsters

– Hours before, the man sat in his office and cranked down the sound on the flat screen (Animal Planet, curiously, the entertainment for the moment), and then he looked at a visitor and said what at this point didn’t need saying.

“Winning games now, it doesn’t matter how tough it is or how easy it is,” is how TinCaps manager Jose Valentin put it. “Winning games is what counts.”

And here was lesson No. 1 Wednesday night, delivered in a place where everything, eventually, is a lesson.

Low-A ball is all about education, after all, a place where kids learn to be men and the men learn how to turn a game into a profession. Winning Games Is What Counts is both a profound and obvious algorithm in that process, especially with the summer down to the unpopped kernels and Valentin’s TinCaps taking the field against the team that’s chasing them for the last playoff spot.

That team is West Michigan, and the man it sent to the hill Wednesday for game No. 135 of 140, Wilsen Palacios, gave the TinCaps nothing. Through five innings, the home nine swung and missed or bounced harmless grounders or lifted quiet fly balls that died without a sound, and then Palacios left and the Whitecaps’ bullpen took over.

And still the TinCaps’ bats fanned air and the grounders bounced and the fly balls died.

If not for James Needy, who went a heroic nine innings and surrendered just four hits (“Unbelievable pitching performance,” Valentin said), Winning The Game would have been a gone proposition. But the Whitecaps scored just one run of their own, and that came on a wild throw by shortstop Jace Peterson on a gimme ground ball in the second inning.

And so come on down to the bottom of the ninth, West Michigan clinging to a 1-0 lead, the top of the TinCaps’ order looking for any opening, any sliver of daylight.

Up to bat came leadoff man Travis Jankowski, working on an 11-game hitting streak, and crack went a single sliding between shortstop and third, to extend it to 12.

After which Peterson lifted yet another quiet fly ball to right.

After which Yeison Asencio bounced a grounder to the second baseman, erasing Jankowski.

After which Mike Gallic – a .277 hitter for the season, but just 1 for 24 across his last 10 games – came to the plate.

He took strike one. Ripped a shot down the third-base line, just foul, for strike two. Bounced a grounder to second base, 4-3 in your scorebook, for the last out.

West Michigan 1, TinCaps 0. And again the Whitecaps are just one game behind the TinCaps with five remaining.

“Tough loss,” Jankowski said. “Have to have a short memory. Got to go out and have a good performance from the whole team.”

And Valentin?

Again he sat in his office – tennis was on the tube this time – and said, again, what really didn’t need to be said.

“That’s how baseball goes,” he said.

Behind him, on the wall calendar, he’d already written the “L” for the night’s defeat in black marker. It joined four others in the last seven games.

Winning games is what counts ….

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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