The 2018 Fourth of July game at Parkview Field was one of the best of the season. Top prospect MacKenzie Gore pitched six shutout innings to earn his first professional victory, the TinCaps won 7-0 and the triumph moved them into a tie for first place in the Midwest League's Eastern Division.
It was a high-water mark for the TinCaps as they eventually slipped back to fifth place in the second-half standings, missing the playoffs by a single game. The 2019 TinCaps, meanwhile, are hoping the Fourth of July can be, rather than a peak, the start to a climb up from their nadir. Fort Wayne enters today's game, sure to draw one of the biggest crowds of the season, dead last in the Eastern Division and losers of five of their last six games. On Wednesday, they left 11 runners on base and went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position in a 3-2 loss. Something needs to change, quickly, if this season is going to be salvaged. Maybe some patriotic spirit and some longer-than-usual postgame fireworks can provide the spark.
One year after Gore dominated on Independence Day, 20-year-old Sam Keating will get the ball for the TinCaps to open the game. Keating isn't looking for his first pro win, but he is trying to bounce back from one of his worst starts of the season his last time out. Against South Bend on June 28, he gave up seven runs on seven hits in just 4 1/3 innings while striking out two and walking three. An issue for Keating lately has been his lack of strikeouts: he whiffed eight in his second start of the season, but has not had more than six strikeouts since and no more than three in any of his previous four starts. That puts more pressure on the TinCaps defense, which has really struggled of late. Lack of strikeouts isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Keating has given up a lot of hard contact, as well. We'll see if he can rebound with a big crowd behind him tonight.
The Captains, who are currently second in the East, will counter Keating with 24-year-old left-hander Zach Draper, a 30th-round pick in the 2017 draft. He's been mostly a reliever this season (this will be just his fifth start) and he's worked as high as Double-A, but moving into the starting rotation on a semi-regular basis has been rough for him. Since making his first start of the year May 31, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Draper has a 5.57 ERA with 13 strikeouts and 14 walks in 21 innings. Granted some of his appearances in that time are at higher levels, but the fact remains he is most comfortable out of the bullpen. The TinCaps have been most successful recently when they jump out to an early lead and get the ball to the relievers' hands with an advantage. They will try to knock Draper out early tonight.
If the TinCaps are going to climb up from the cellar of the Eastern Division, tonight would be a fitting night to start doing so. They can't get back into the race with just one win, however; it will be a long, hard slog over the next two months. Happy Fourth of July!