The TinCaps are figuring things out.
It might be too late for Fort Wayne to make a run at a playoff spot – it sits 6 1/2 games out with 23 games to play – but it's certainly not too late for the TinCaps to have an affect on the playoff race as a spoiler. Of Fort Wayne's final 24 games (including tonight's 10-4 win over the Dayton Dragons at Parkview Field), 18 are against Dayton and Great Lakes, two teams that are still in the thick of the playoff hunt.
As Dayton found out tonight, the TinCaps are not about to roll over for the teams higher than them in the standings in the season's final few weeks. In the opener of a six-game series against the Dragons, Fort Wayne clubbed 10 hits, drew 10 walks and loaded the bases in four separate innings on the way to an easy victory. The triumph was the team's fourth win in a row, equaling a season-high.
"There's energy (with this team)," said hitting coach Jonathan Mathews, who will be the acting manager for the first three games of this series with manager Anthony Contreras taking a few days off. "Tonight was a tough night to bring energy: it's hot, it's humid, it's heavy air and it's sticky, but the guys have gone about their day the right way and they've prepared the right way.
"They understand that we've got a long way to go in the season yet and the work they put in during the day, it's not over. They're continuing to do that, they're continuing to grind and they're getting results."
The results showed most obviously at the plate tonight, where Fort Wayne had all nine hitters in its lineup reach base at least twice. It scored four runs in the fourth, two more in the fifth and three in the seventh (the latter with the help of back-to-back errors from the beleaguered Dragons). There were very few bad at-bats all night and the TinCaps actually left 12 runners on base despite scoring 10 runs. Among the players with two hits were Yorman Rodriguez (two singles and also hit the ball hard twice for outs), Justin Lopez (two singles and an RBI), Adam Kerner (a double, two RBI and a single, the latter a pop-up in right that fell between three Dayton defenders) and Reinaldo Ilarraza (a single and a beautiful bunt single). The offensive uprising was the result of the TinCaps utilizing the approach that Mathews favors: selective aggressiveness.
"They're ready to hit every pitch and if it's not a pitch they can handle or not a pitch they want, they check off," Mathews said. "I preach that every day and they did a marvelous job of that tonight. It's not a passive approach, it's very aggressive, but it's ready to hit and if it's not there, it's a check-off."
It was overshadowed by the offensive onslaught, but the TinCaps also got a mostly excellent start from right-hander Carlos Guarate, who showed some excellent poise to bounce back from his previous outing, when he gave up eight runs in two innings. The 20-year-old Guarate, the youngest pitcher in High-A Central, opened the game with four scoreless innings tonight before tiring and surrendering three runs in the fifth. He did hold on long enough to finish the inning and earn his first victory. Pitcher wins are out of fashion in the statistical community and don't really tell an observer much, especially in the minor leagues, but it was probably a psychological boost to a young pitcher to see one in the win column after he started his Fort Wayne tenure 0-5 in six starts.
"It was great, he did, he bounced back," Mathews said of Guarate's performance. "He threw the ball over the plate, he got ground balls. It was a tough, hot night tonight and I think he started to wear down a little in that fifth inning and gave up a little bit of damage, but as far as how he competed and how he threw the baseball, I was very pleased."
For his part, Mathews gets the acting manager slot while Contreras is out, but he said the fifth-year Fort Wayne manager is still calling many of the shots in pregame, setting the day's schedule and the lineup. Mathews also has plenty of help from pitching coach Jimmy Jones and fielding coach Felipe Blanco during the game. Whatever the chain of command was Tuesday, it worked – a lot is working for the TinCaps right now as the season enters its final stage.