The entire TinCaps season has seen the team take one step forward and then one step back, over and over again. The four-game winning streak Fort Wayne was riding when it entered play against the Dayton Dragons tonight was one of the biggest steps forward it has taken this year, but it, too, was followed by a step back.
That step in the wrong direction was a 4-3 loss in 10 innings to the visiting Dragons at Parkview Field tonight that could have easily gone the other way. With the game tied at 3 in the eighth inning, the TinCaps had the go-ahead run on third with one out and the Dayton infield in. But Luis Almanzar and Adam Kerner struck out to end the inning and Fort Wayne was unable to score in the ninth or 10th – its final nine hitters in a row were retired, in fact.
Dayton struck in the top of the 10th, going in front on an RBI double from Allan Cerda on a fly ball that landed on the warning track, just barely out of the reach of center-fielder Reinaldo Ilarraza, who was playing shallow.
It was that kind of night for the TinCaps: the step back wasn't because they played poorly, though they did strike out 14 times and go 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position one night after piling up 10 hits and 10 walks. The step back was because this was a winnable game and Fort Wayne wasn't quite able to grab it.
Consider the fourth inning. With the TinCaps trailing 2-0, they put runners on first and second with nobody out and then Justin Lopez ripped a line drive right back through the middle, where shortstop Matt McLain happened to be standing because he was holding the runner on second. What could have been a game-tying single turned into a double play in an instant. Fort Wayne still managed to get a run in the inning when the next three hitters reached, but then Reinaldo Ilarraza struck out with the bases loaded on a 3-2 count to end the threat.
Then in the eighth, the TinCaps pushed across two runs to tie the game on Ornelas's double, leaving a runner on second with nobody out. A sacrifice bunt moved Ornelas to third, but then neither Almanzar nor Kerner was able to put the ball in play. Finally, Fort Wayne was unable to push across its free runner on second base in the 10th, despite bringing the middle of its order to the plate and runner Chris Givin moving to third on a wild pitch. Ornelas, the eighth-inning hero, struck out swinging to end the game. It was a coulda-woulda-shoulda game for Fort Wayne and it becomes an even more frustrating defeat when the stakes are taken into account: a TinCaps would victory would've given them their longest winning streak of the season.
There were some bright spots in the game, however. Chief among those were the Parkview Field debut of highly-touted relievers Chase Walter and Kevin Kopps. Walter dominated at Low-A before coming to the TinCaps and he pitched two scoreless innings tonight, striking out the side in the seventh. All three of those whiffs came on swings and misses against sliders that started in the zone before darting down and away from right-handed hitters. That slider, when paired with Walter's fastball that touches 97 mph, could get the 6-foot-7 23-year-old to the big leagues sooner rather than later.
The same could be said for Kopps, the 2021 Golden Spikes Award winner as the best player in college baseball. He was every bit as good as Walter tonight, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth in a tie game and striking out two. One of the strikeouts came on a cutter that disappeared as it arrived at the plate, while the second was on a hard-breaking slider. It would have been exciting to see Kopps go another inning and work the 10th, but the Padres are likely monitoring his workload carefully after he pitched a full season of college baseball in the spring. He was pulled in favor of Wen-Hua Sung, who gave up the game-winning double.
The TinCaps will have another hard-to-hit reliever on the mound Thursday when they welcome 27-year-old Trey Wingenter, a Padres bullpen arm on a rehab assignment after July 2020 Tommy John surgery. Wingenter, who averaged 97.7 mph with his fastball in 2018 at the big-league level, is scheduled to pitch an inning for Fort Wayne. Having an MLB pitcher in the clubhouse could take some of the sting out of tonight's loss and could be just what Fort Wayne needs to bounce back against the Dragons.