Heading into tonight's matchup with Dayton, the TinCaps had four hits or fewer in five of their previous six games. That included a no-hitter at the hands of West Michigan on Thursday and a lackluster loss in the series-opener against the Dragons on Tuesday.
Tonight, Fort Wayne unleashed a week's worth of pent-up offensive energy, mashing 15 hits, one shy of a season-high. Among those were a season-high nine extra-base hits and a season-high seven doubles. Those two-baggers, which lifted the TinCaps into the league lead in that category with 130, all came between the fifth and the eighth as the hosts turned a tight game into a 9-3 drubbing that evened the series at a game apiece.
The TinCaps may be in last place in the High-A Central East Division and Dayton may be in first with 6 1/2 games separating the teams, but Fort Wayne is by no means intimidated by the Dragons. The TinCaps played them tough this season and have a string of close losses plus a few blowout wins to show for it. Tonight was one of the latter and showed again how much talent Fort Wayne has up and down its lineup.
"(Dayton)'s staff is arguably the best in the league, we saw that the first time through (in a series in Dayton in June)," outfielder Grant Little said. "We know that if we get to their starter early, like we did tonight, we have a chance. ... Anytime we can get a starter out before the fifth inning, we're going to have a good chance because we're going to put together good at-bats throughout the game.
"Tonight's a perfect example, we did that and then we had big innings later on."
The TinCaps threatened early against Dayton starter Lyon Richardson and finally broke through when Luis Almanzar hit a two-run homer in the fourth to knot the score at two. Readers of this blog will remember I wrote before the game that the TinCaps need Almanzar, a talented hitter who was 3 for 45 before the home run, to get going. The long-ball swing was a good sign and it rattled Richardson, who walked two before the end of the inning and exited after that fourth frame.
Little said the TinCaps were "embarrassed" by Richardson when they faced him in Dayton (he threw seven innings, struck out 10 and gave up only two hits) and took that personally, motivating them for tonight's matchup. It was obvious that Fort Wayne was locked in tonight – not only did it string together a wave of big hits, but even the at-bats that didn't end in hits were strong. There were many deep counts, spoiled two-strike pitches and smart hitting. It was an offensive clinic for most of the night and especially in the sixth and seventh innings, when the TinCaps combined to plate seven runs.
Little had an RBI double in both of those innings and now has five doubles in the last two weeks after managing just three extra-base hits in his first 27 games of the season (80 at-bats). Little is a talented player – good in the field, a strong baserunner and a solid contact hitter – and hitting for power has been the missing piece in his game so far this year. Now that he's started to drive the ball into the gaps, he's a very valuable bat in the TinCap lineup.
"I just passed the 100 at-bat mark this year and I think it's just me getting more at-bats," Little said of his recent power surge. "Getting adjusted, I had a late start (he missed the start of the season with an injury), so I think it's just me finally figuring out where I need to make contact in the zone, figuring out what the opposing team is trying to do to me. These last two weeks the power numbers are starting to go up, which is good to see."
It was overshadowed somewhat by the terrific offensive performance, but the Fort Wayne bullpen was also excellent tonight. Four TinCaps relievers – Felix Minjarez, Fred Schlichtholz (in his first appearance in Fort Wayne since 2018), Austin Smith and Michell Miliano – combined to toss six innings, give up one run on four hits and keep the Dragons at bay as their team surged in front. Smith in particular has been outstanding lately, throwing 9 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings over his last seven appearances, giving up only two hits and striking out 12. He pitched a perfect eighth today and Miliano did the same in the ninth as Fort Wayne retired the final eight hitters it faced. The bullpen will need another strong performance Thursday with Anderson Espinoza, who has not gone more than three innings in a start this season, on the mound to start.
"That's huge," Little said of the bullpen performance. "We've had some bad luck with injuries with (Carter) Loewen and (Jose) Geraldo. ... Guys have had to step up these past two weeks and they've done a terrific job so far. We're going to need them to keep doing that, because if we keep swinging it like this, then they're going to have a lot of opportunities to keep the game in our favor."