SOUTH BEND – TinCaps catcher Juan Fernandez has always been a clubhouse glue guy. He's always smiling, always keeping everybody in good spirits. He's the backup catcher and starter Blake Hunt has been solid all season long, so there aren't as many at-bats for Fernandez as he probably would like. No matter, he contributes any way he can and takes advantage when he does get some playing time.
In 2018, Fernandez's contributions were more often than not of the off-the-field variety. He hit just .224 and had a .296 OBP. This season, he has been extremely productive at the plate, despite playing infrequently, which makes it difficult to find a rhythm. The 20-year-old backstop is hitting .282 with a .353 OBP this season and tonight he came through with one of the biggest hits of the year.
With Fort Wayne trailing 1-0 in the fifth inning of a game it absolutely had to have to stay in the playoff hunt, Fernandez rocketed a line drive into the seats in left field for his second home run of the season, knotting the score. Fort Wayne went on to win 3-1.
"He's an aggressive player," manager Anthony Contreras said of Fernandez. "He's gonna take his hacks, he's gonna take his swings and with his hand-eye coordination that he has, he has the ability to do that. He's short in stature (he's listed at a generous 5-foot-11), but he's strong and he can do that when he can get his pitch.
"He's been pretty clutch all year, getting on base. He can draw the walk, he'll put balls in play, doesn't strike out too many times. With him, knowing the person and teammate he is, everybody's going to rally behind him when he gets a big hit like that."
The home run was huge, as was a play Fernandez made in the eighth to save a run. There was a pop-up between first and home that could have gone to either the catcher or the first baseman. Fernandez called it, but slightly misjudged it. He realized his mistake and launched himself backward, laying out and grabbing the ball by the edge of his mitt for a terrific catch with a runner on third.
Fernandez helped Fort Wayne escape South Bend with one win and leave only six games out of the final playoff spot. A loss tonight would have been potentially the end of the TinCaps' postseason hopes, but they're still alive for another couple of days.
This was an all-around team victory. The TinCaps played rock-solid baseball in all phases and weren't rattled when they fell behind early. Starter Edwuin Bencomo was excellent in a big moment and the relief pitching of Cody Tyler and Mason Fox – who has struck out an unreal 10 of the 17 batters he's faced in the Midwest League – was lights-out. Nearly every player on the roster deserves some credit for this victory.
"Bouncing back from a three-game skid like that is good for them," Contreras said. "Especially late in the season like this, the guys are grinding, the bodies are feeling tired, things like that. ... (The win) gives us confidence going into the break (Tuesday) and then back to Lansing on Wednesday."
The three-game series against Lansing will be just as important as this one against the Cubs. Lansing is also between the TinCaps and that final playoff spot; the Lugnuts sit just one game behind South Bend in the standings and are fighting for their own postseason lives. The TinCaps will get their best shot, but Fort Wayne is the team with little to lose. The TinCaps have hung around the playoff picture longer than many would have expected in July and can really make some noise if they play well in Lansing.
"Obviously it's good to finish on a win here while we're going to Lansing this next series," Ethan Skender said. "Our goal is just to win series after series like we've been doing. We're still not out of the playoff hunt, we've still got plenty of games left and all it takes is a little hot streak like we had (early in August) and we'll be right back in it."