The TinCaps' offense took a little while to get going this afternoon in Fort Wayne's series finale against South Bend, but it exploded to life in the middle innings, pushed across five runs in the sixth and the TinCaps went to win 7-5 at Parkview Field in front of an announced crowd of 5,483.
The game ended in the eighth inning because of a flash downpour that completely drenched the field and robbed South Bend of a chance to tie the game. The Cubs left runners on first and third with one out in the top of the eighth.
The victory earned Fort Wayne a series split and the TinCaps (44-58, 17-19 second half) are unbeaten in their last five series, a season-high. Today's game was the last of 18 contests between the in-state rivals this season, of which South Bend won 10. None of the six games this week were decided by more than three runs.
The TinCaps trailed 3-2 entering the bottom of the sixth after the Cubs plated a pair of runs in the top of the frame off reliever Keegan Collett, who was making his High-A debut.
Left-fielder Matthew Acosta got the winning rally started with a leadoff walk and two batters later Cole Cummings doubled to put two on for Lucas Dunn. Dunn laced a single through the right side to knot the score and Joshua Mears put Fort Wayne in front with a high chopper that got over the head of third baseman Luis Verdugo for a single and a 4-3 lead. Carlos Luis followed with a walk to load the bases, bringing No. 8 hitter Agustin Ruiz to the plate.
On a 1-1 count, Ruiz ripped a line drive down the right-field line. Right-fielder Jonathan Sierra went over to cut it off, but the ball rolled through his legs and all the way to the wall, giving all three runners a chance to score. Ruiz ended up on third after what was ruled a double and the TinCaps surged to a 7-3 advantage.
Fort Wayne scoring seven runs would have seemed laughable just a few innings earlier. The TinCaps were victims of one of the best pitching performances this reporter has seen in his four seasons covering High-A as South Bend starter Daniel Palencia, the No. 22 prospect in the Chicago Cubs farm system, struck out the first six hitters he faced and pitched three perfect innings with seven whiffs in all. The 5-foot-11 Palencia touched 102 mph with his fastball, sat in the triple digits and mixed in a 91-92 mph slider and 93 mph changeup, all of which he threw for strikes. He was taken out after three frames and only 35 pitches, giving the TinCaps some much-needed relief.
Fort Wayne seemed happy to be rid of Palencia because its offense broke out immediately. Acosta got the hit parade going with a one-out triple off the wall in right – Sierra nearly made a spectacular catch, but the ball bounced away from him, turning a double into a triple – and came home on a Brandon Valenzuela fly to deep center, putting Fort Wayne in front 1-0.
South Bend got a run back in the fifth, but the TinCaps struck again in the bottom half. Dunn opened the inning with a single, Ruiz walked and Olivier Basabe, the No. 9 hitter in the Fort Wayne order, lofted a single to center to bring in the go-ahead run.
In all, between Jarry Dale's flyout to the warning track leading off the fourth and Ruiz's bases-clearing double in the sixth, a remarkable 15 of 18 TinCaps either hit the ball or walked.
Despite Palencia's dominant pitching performance, the TinCaps were tied through the early innings thanks to an excellent outing from their own starter, right-hander Jose Espada. The 25-year-old has been a reliever for most of the last few seasons, but made his second start of the week today and zipped through the first four innings, using his outstanding slider to induce a legion of swing-and-miss from South Bend. He ran into some trouble in the fifth, giving up a run on a Pablo Aliendo single that scored Kevin Made. Made had reached on a dropped third strike and stolen second.
In all, Espada worked five innings, gave up three hits and struck out nine without a walk. He struck out 15 without a walk in two starts this week. Today, he worked more than four innings in an appearance for the first time since Aug. 23, 2018.
The Cubs rallied late, getting a run in the seventh when Aliendo lined a home run to the left-field bleachers off reliever Gabe Morales and another in the eighth on an RBI ground ball from Verdugo. He reached base himself on a Dunn throwing error and a walk put the tying run on base when the deluge began. After a delay of more than an hour, the game was called because the field remained unplayable despite the best efforts of the grounds crew.
The TinCaps have Monday off and then travel to Eastlake, Ohio to take on the Lake County Captains in a six-game series. The Captains (35-31, 19-14 second half) are one of two teams, along with the West Michigan Whitecaps, ahead of Fort Wayne in East Division second-half standings. The series-opener will take place Tuesday at 6:35 p.m.