The TinCaps return home today from a road trip to Dayton, Ohio, which, outside of the ongoing series of bullpen hiccups which have come to define Fort Wayne's season somewhat, could scarcely have gone better. The TinCaps four of their six games against the Dayton Dragons, their second straight road series victory, pitched the franchise's first no-hitter in more than a decade last Tuesday and won the series finale 11-10 with a go-ahead grand slam from Nathan Martorella.
Fort Wayne remains in last place in the Midwest League East Division, but it is inching closer to the Dragons, the team ahead of it in fifth, and has a chance to continue its ascent toward respectability with a six-game series against the Lansing Lugnuts this week at Parkview Field, then six more home games next week against the in-state rival South Bend Cubs.
On the mound for the TinCaps in the opener of the 12-game homestand is the pitcher who keyed the no-hitter: right-hander Jairo Iriarte, the Padres' No. 11 prospect who has pitched like much more than that to start the season. In seven starts at High-A, Iriarte is 2-2 with a 1.73 ERA and 39 strikeouts against 13 walks in 26 innings. He has dominated his last three outings, giving up only two hits and no runs over 13 innings while striking out 16 and walking five. That stretch crested last week against the Dragons, when he struck out eight and walked in six innings of shutout, no-hit work. His mid-90s fastball, high-80s changeup and darting sweeper/slider have baffled hitters all season. Curiously, however, he hasn't been quite as good at Parkview Field. He has pitched only two innings in Fort Wayne in May (his start two weeks ago was shortened by rain) and his home ERA this year is a (passable to be sure) 3.38, while his road mark is 1.00. He is holding opponents to a .115 batting average on the road and only .267 at home. Small sample-size caveats apply here, so Iriarte has a chance to start turning his home record around with a strong performance tonight.
The Lugnuts will counter Iriarte with 23-year-old right-hander Christian Fernandez, the No. 25 prospect in the Athletics' farm system according to Fangraphs. Signed by the Rays as a 16-year-old out of Cabimas, Venezuela, he is in his eighth season of pro baseball and on his second organization after getting traded from Tampa Bay to Oakland, part of the deal that sent MLB catcher Christian Bethancourt to the Rays. He throws a mid-90s fastball, plus a changeup and a sharp breaking ball, all of which he can throw for strikes, though he has been only so-so since switching organizations, posting a 6.91 ERA in High-A last season after the trade and 5.65 mark with middling strikeout and walk numbers this year.
Lastly, Christian Fernandez – acquired in the Christian Bethancourt deal along with Cal Stevenson – was awesome last night: 5 hitless innings, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts. (Today, by the way, is Christian's 23rd birthday!) pic.twitter.com/xKNqx1b7aY— Jesse Goldberg-Strassler (@jgoldstrass) August 11, 2022
He'll have to deal with a Fort Wayne lineup which has been finding its footing as the year has progressed. No. 1 Padres prospect Jackson Merrill enters the game on an eight-game hitting streak, during which he is batting .314, while Martorella is tied for the league lead in home runs (seven) and second in RBI (30) after driving in five Sunday. Catcher Brandon Valenzuela doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the league lead in rate stats, but his .921 OPS would rank sixth in the league if he did.
First baseman Nathan Martorella was GRAND Sunday! He hits third in tonight's starting lineup. pic.twitter.com/QuLMbBwoCg— Fort Wayne TinCaps (@TinCaps) May 23, 2023
The TinCaps also saw their struggling bullpen (ranked 10th in the league in ERA at 4.76) get a boost Tuesday when the Padres sent a familiar face, right-hander Edwuin Bencomo, from Double-A San Antonio to Fort Wayne. Bencomo has pitched with Fort Wayne in parts of every season since 2019 and was at his best last year, going 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA in 25 appearances out of the 'pen before getting promoted. He has struggled in 20 games over the end of last year and the start of this year with San Antonio, posting an ERA near 5 and very few strikeouts, but he could be very useful for a Fort Wayne bullpen desperate for reliable arms.
In exchange for Bencomo, the Padres sent lefty-swinging first baseman Cole Cummings to Double-A. Cummings had been hot recently, but he was getting only sparing playing time as Martorella locked down first base. He could actually get more consistent at-bats at the higher level while breaking the infield logjam in Fort Wayne at the same time.