The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 15, 2021 7:10 pm

TinCaps roar back to split series behind pitching

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

The 18-game season series between the TinCaps and in-state rival South Bend Cubs began in May with a melee on the field that resulted in suspensions for multiple players on both teams. The series ended Sunday and it was Fort Wayne that had the last laugh, winning 6-1 to earn a victory in the season series, 10 games to eight.

The TinCaps dropped the first three games of the series this week against the Cubs, but ultimately ended the set the same way they entered it, on a three-game winning streak. Sunday's victory, which featured a four-run first inning against former TinCap right-hander Anderson Espinoza and an outstanding start from Fort Wayne righty Connor Lehmann, added to the already stellar response the TinCaps mounted after getting no-hit in a 3-0 loss Thursday. They won the next three games easily and racked up 28 hits in those contests.

"Going down three games to zero early on is tough to come back from, but our offense clicked at the right time Friday and we put together good defense, hitting and pitching," Lehmann said. "When you have those three things working, it's tough to lose games."

Staked to an early 4-0 lead – thanks in large part to a three-run double from Justin Lopez off Espinoza in the first inning – Lehmann turned in easily his best performance since being promoted from Low-A Lake Elsinore to Fort Wayne in late July. He went five shutout innings, giving up two hits (one of which came on the game's first batter) and striking out four. The TinCaps had six straight above-average (at minimum) starts in the series this week; the starting pitchers combined to give up only one run prior to the fifth inning in the six games.

Though the team's hitting and relief pitching have been on and off in 2021, starting pitching has been rock-solid for Fort Wayne almost all year. That's remained true even though Moises Lugo is the only member of the Opening Day rotation who is still starting for the TinCaps at the moment. That consistency despite the turnover is notable and is a testament to how deep San Diego's farm system remains, despite the promotion of top prospects like MacKenzie Gore, Ryan Weathers, Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet to the higher levels of the minors or the majors. In the previous 33 games entering Sunday, the TinCaps had the lowest team ERA in all of High-A at 3.20, a figure they improved upon in the series finale.

"They've been a bright spot for sure," manager Anthony Contreras said of the starting pitching. "You look back at the guys we had in the beginning (of the season), (Ethan) Elliott, (Matt) Waldron, Espi(noza), guys who were horses for us, but the other guys were called up for a reason and they've picked up the slack big time. Lugo's been a steady force for us, (Danny) Denz has come on as one of our top-end guys right now that can give us some length and with Lehmann giving us another good (start) today, it's good to see the organization has that depth and can be able to move guys around and not skip a beat."

On offense, the TinCaps have missed Agustin Ruiz since he was promoted to Double-A San Antonio, but they've also gotten a great stretch from infielder Ethan Skender. Skender went 2 for 3 with a walk Sunday, giving him a 15-game on-base streak that is the longest by a TinCap this season. Since July 23, the 24-year-old Skender is batting .346 with a .484 OBP and an OPS greater than 1.000. 

That has helped because the TinCaps are missing two of the hitters that carried them through much of the early season. Not only has Ruiz been promoted, but catcher Jonny Homza, who was one of the league's hottest hitters in May and June, has not played since Aug. 6 with a shoulder issue. Adam Kerner has filled in behind the plate, picking up some big hits this week, including his first professional home run and Homza's status remains day-to-day, though there is a possibility he could return during Fort Wayne's upcoming series at West Michigan.

As the season stands now, the TinCaps have played 90 games and have 30 remaining. Fort Wayne retains faint playoff hopes, sitting tied for fourth in the High-A Central East Division and six games out of the final playoff spot. If they string some wins together, they might be able to make a run, but it has to start next week when they visit the Whitecaps, who have similar aspirations and an identical 43-47 record entering the series with Fort Wayne.

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