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Lugnuts shortstop Drew Swift clears the lane Wednesday after stepping on the bag to force TinCaps runner Olivier Basabe out at second at Parkview Field.

For most of the season, the TinCaps have struggled mightily when they fall behind early. In their first 40 games this season in which the opposing team scored first, they won just four times.

In the last week, however, Fort Wayne has won three such games in a row, including an 8-7 triumph over the Lansing Lugnuts at Parkview Field this afternoon in which the hosts rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to take the lead, fell behind again, then erased a 7-4 Lansing lead, winning on an Anthony Vilar walk-off single in the ninth inning. It was Fort Wayne's fifth win in six games and second in a row to start the series with Lansing.

The TinCaps' last loss in a game they trailed at the outset came Thursday, when they rallied from an 8-0 deficit to force extra frames only to fall 11-10 in 13 innings. It's clear this team has a newfound confidence in late-inning situations and that belief in its come-from-behind ability has helped it ascend into a tie for fourth place in the Midwest League East Division second-half standings, five games behind first-place West Michigan.

Manager Brian Esposito said he likes his team's offensive approach late in games.

"Tracking and being good at not chasing pitches is something we've been good at all year," Esposito said. "Now, we just have to make sure that the games where we're down or coming from behind, we can't just give at-bats away going on first pitches. We have to let their guys grind on the mound, we have to make them throw a ton of pitches, we have to get deep into their bullpen and that's what we continue to do. 

"The last seven games, we've done a good job of just grinding out at-bats and getting into people's bullpens and making them get guys up (and warming up). ... We're doing a better job of our approaches when we're down. Instead of trying to be the hero that's going to drive it, we're continuing to pass the baton, drawing walks and seeing a ton of pitches."

Fort Wayne demonstrated the approach Esposito talked about in the ninth inning today as Agustin Ruiz and Jack Stronach drew back-to-back walks to open the frame, setting the stage for Vilar to play the hero. The catcher's hit was the TinCaps' sixth of the game with a runner in scoring position and none of those went for extra bases. Fort Wayne simply put the ball in play over and over again and found enough holes to win. 

In all, the TinCaps piled up 12 hits and walked eight times. Everyone in the lineup had at least one hit and six of the nine starters reached base at least twice. That's part of what has made Fort Wayne successful offensively in recent games: everyone in the lineup is dangerous. The TinCaps have three hits and three RBI in the series from the No. 9 hitter in their lineup, including Vilar's walk-off single today.

"It just feels like our lineup is a lot more complete now, in the second half," Vilar said. "We're confident every game we go into and we know that everybody and anybody in the lineup can start something, so we're comfortable."

The TinCaps have 12 hits in back-to-back games to start the series against the Lugnuts and are scoring better than seven runs per contest in 14 games against Lansing this season. Fort Wayne has an 11-3 mark in those games and is now tied with the Lugnuts for fourth place in the division after starting the second half 2-9.

The TinCaps' offense has had chances to come back more often in the late innings recently in part because its bullpen has kept it in games. That was the case today. After starter Efraín Contreras left the game with some arm stiffness in the third inning, reliever Dwayne Matos battled through four frames on short notice and Jose Espada and Seth Mayberry combined to pitch three shutout innings as Fort Wayne completed its comeback.

Mayberry in particular has been excellent recently, striking out six of the seven hitters he's faced over his last two appearances and notching a 1.38 ERA with 21 strikeouts and five walks over 13 innings since May 28. He has taken over from the inactive Luke Boyd as Fort Wayne's late-inning specialist and blew through a 1-2-3 top of the ninth inning this afternoon before his team won the game in the bottom half.

"It's the value of dependability," Esposito said. "If I can depend on a guy to be able to come in and keep a game where it's at or secure a lead or at least be competitive in the strike zone and not walk guys ... we're good."

Contreras was flexing his elbow somewhat as he came off the field in the third inning. Esposito said the 22-year-old right-hander, who is 0-3 with a 6.02 ERA this season in his return from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in the fall of 2020, was removed for precautionary reasons and that he'd probably be fine going forward. Contreras wanted to stay in the game, the manager said, but Esposito felt there was little reason to risk a more significant issue. Contreras gave up four runs on six hits, so he wasn't pitching particularly well when he came out, but he did have good stuff.

Meanwhile, speedster Max Ferguson was a late scratch from the lineup, leaving Corey Rosier to move back into the leadoff spot he occupied before Ferguson was promoted from Low-A in late June. Rosier made the most of his time back at the top of the order, hitting a home run and a triple, drawing a walk and extending his league-leading runs-scored total to 61, but Ferguson should be back soon. He got hit on the hand with a pitch Tuesday and while he stayed in the game and even hit a triple after the HBP, he was sore today. He likely could have started if the game had been night instead of the TinCaps' first mid-week matinee since 2019. As it was, Ferguson scored the winning run after pinch-running for Ruiz in the ninth inning.

This TinCaps team spent much of the year falling behind early and never recovering. Lately, it has found its way in the late innings, valuing at-bats, putting together sustained rallies and getting better work out of the bullpen than at any time since April. That combination has helped Fort Wayne not only win, but win in style and have a good time doing it.

"We're having a lot of fun," Vilar said. "Walk-offs are a lot more fun than regular wins, but we can't be having walk-off wins a lot because that's just too close of a game, so the main priority is to try to get a lead early, hold it and then finish it off."

College Sportswriter

Dylan Sinn is a College Sportswriter, covering mainly Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame, as well local colleges in northeast Indiana and Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball. He is a graduate of Indiana University and an AP Top 25 football voter.