When the TinCaps roared back from an eight-run deficit last Thursday to tie a game against Lake County only to eventually lose in 13 innings, it felt like a missed opportunity for a galvanizing victory that could have awoken the struggling team from the doldrums that had engulfed it since late April.
It turns out, even losing that game wasn't enough to blunt the impact of that wild comeback performance. Since then, Fort Wayne has won 6 of 7, including four games by one run and three that were come-from-behind triumphs. The latest nail-biting victory came tonight, a 5-4 win over the Lansing Lugnuts at Parkview Field that catapulted the TinCaps past Lansing and into sole possession of fourth place in the Midwest League East Division second-half standings after a 2-9 start to the half.
This has been Fort Wayne's best stretch of baseball since its 10-5 start and it only needs one win over the next three days to clinch its first home series victory since it took 4 of 6 against South Bend from April 12-17.
"There's no doubt winning is better than losing," manager Brian Esposito said. "The environment winning creates is guys are hungry to come up, everybody wants a piece of the pie, guys who aren't getting at-bats that they want, they're working a little bit harder during the workday so that when the bell does ring they're gonna get theirs.
"Winning fixes a lot of things, man. It makes guys show up in a better mood, a better spot. They're pulling on the same end of the rope a lot harder when we win. Not that we don't when we're going through our struggles, but you can definitely sense it. They always talk about, 'What comes first, winning or chemistry?' I'm a firm believer you have to win some games if you want to establish some chemistry and it looks like we're on that path right now."
The TinCaps have won four straight one-run games after starting the season 6-10 in such contests and losing a significant number of games they probably should have won. One-run games are always a coin flip so there's a little luck involved in those four consecutive triumphs, but there was some bad luck early in the year and in a league that splits its season into two halves like the Midwest League, it's better to have all the luck in one half to maximize the chances of earning a postseason bid.
To be clear, there was little lucky about the TinCaps' win tonight. They roared to a 4-0 lead with four runs in the third inning and, after Lansing tied the game against Fort Wayne ace Robert Gasser with two runs apiece in the fourth and fifth, the TinCaps multiple runners on base in the fifth and seventh before breaking through in the eighth. Lucas Dunn's single in the eighth scored Anthony Vilar and provided the winning margin.
In the seventh, the hosts had two on with one out following back-to-back walks to Cole Cummings and Brandon Valenzuela. Red-hot Corey Rosier hit next and ripped a screaming line drive to center, but right at Lansing's Kevin Richards, who gloved it for an out. That might have deflated the TinCaps earlier in the season, but no longer.
"I always felt like we were going to win games," Esposito said. "There was no doubt from my perspective we were going to win games, I just think it was some players would see the leadoff walk or the ball that was barreled in the gap that didn't fall in – like Rosier's at-bat – we felt like, 'There it is, that's the at-bat we needed to fall in right there and it didn't.'
"They're more engaged with the process of getting better that's leading to productive at-bats. ... They're just going out there and competing. ... We're just playing some pretty good baseball right now and believing we can win the game. There was no doubt we were going to find a place and time to take the W."
The TinCaps' offense, which came into the game averaging more than seven runs in 14 games against Lansing this season, once again piled up baserunners and made life difficult for Lugnut pitching. Lansing starter Joey Estes exited after throwing 81 pitches in just 2 2/3 innings – more evidence of Fort Wayne's excellent, selective approach in recent games – and the TinCaps eventually notched eight hits, seven walks and an HBP. One of the keys for the team recently has been getting production from all over the order and that occurred again tonight, with No. 9 hitter Anthony Vilar going 1 for 2 with a double and two walks. Six of the nine starters collected at least one hit and all six of those reached base at least twice.
"Consistency in your lineup is what you want," Esposito said. "We talk about a one-through-nine mentality. ... As long as there are productive at-bats in our lineup, we're going to find ways to win a lot more games, as opposed to (earlier in the season), we were kind of breezing through the lineup at times; we'd get some production from the top and then it would die off as we approached the bottom, then it would turn over and before you know it it was too late."
A chunk of Fort Wayne's production tonight came from Robert Hassell III, who went 2 for 5 with a double and two RBI in what should be his final game before he departs for Los Angeles, where he'll play in the Futures Game on Saturday. The Padres' No. 1 prospect is second in the Midwest League with a .311 batting average (he was passed tonight by Beloit's Davis Bradshaw, who went 3 for 4 and is at .313) and is likely to miss the rest of the series with his trip to LA. Esposito is excited for the outfielder to get a chance to play against some of the best minor-leaguers in baseball.
"That's quite an accomplishment to be recognized in the Futures Game," the first-year Fort Wayne manager said. "He's done a lot to earn that. A lot of that was who he was coming into this year, but he's gotten a lot better this year, just from having some conversations and understanding the game and doing some things differently with a different mindset of how he's going to do it.
"I'm glad he's going to get a chance to go. I think it'll put him in a different gear once he gets around that type of atmosphere. It's LA. ... It's going to be fun for him and I hope it makes another gear kick in for him."