The last two innings of tonight's matchup between the TinCaps and Lake County were an emotional roller-coaster that played out over a 45-minute span and ended with Fort Wayne uncertainly celebrating the end of its season-long four-game losing streak and a rare victory over the Captains.
With the 5-4 win tonight, the TinCaps are 2-7 against Lake County, compared to 12-11 against the rest of High-A Central. They'll take it after nearly giving the game away with defensive miscues for the second straight night.
The game ended in bizarre fashion. With runners on first and second in a 4-4 game and two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Justin Lopez hit a high fly down the left-field line. Third baseman Brayan Rocchio seemed to have a bead on it going back, but he overran the ball and it landed. The TinCaps spilled out of the dugout immediately, but then stopped and stood around for about 20 seconds as umpire Kellen Martin clarified that the ball was indeed a ground-rule double and not a foul ball. Finally, the celebration of the win began and it ended with Lopez getting a Gatorade bath in shallow center field.
"I'm letting them just take it in and enjoy it," manager Anthony Contreras said of speaking to his team after the game. "Wins like that take a little bit of luck, obviously things got a little crazy at the end. ... All I was concerned about (on the final play) was that our run scored."
The TinCaps should have won the game in nine innings. With two outs and a runner on first in the top of the frame, left-fielder Grant Little and center-fielder Reinaldo Ilarraza converged on a routine fly ball. Little settled under it, but he seemed to get somewhat distracted by Ilarraza, who was just a few feet behind Little's left shoulder, and the ball ticked off Little's glove, letting the tying run come in to score.
It was one of several defensive miscues for the TinCaps that nearly cost them the game. Ilarraza took a poor angle on a drive to right-center in the third inning that turned a double into a triple and led to run; Lopez couldn't handle a ground ball in the sixth with two outs that should have ended the inning; when pitcher Matt Waldron picked that runner off first, Yorman Rodriguez threw the ball away in the ensuing rundown, leading to another run; an inning later, Bryan Lavastida stumbled and fell as he rounded first on a base hit, giving the TinCaps a shot to throw him out at second, but Little's throw short-hopped Lopez and Lavastida was safe – he eventually scored. All of that came one night after Contreras said he wanted his team to try to play "flawless" defense following a 3-2 loss that featured a key error from Ilarraza at second.
"Saying stuff is one thing, but we're going to have to rep it out," Contreras said of improving the defense, which had been a strength much of the season until recently. "There's not much you can say. They know exactly what happened. It's not so much that I'm going to get on them. They're grown men, they made mistakes, they have to learn from it and we have to rep it out in practice and before the games."
To his credit, Little led off the ninth inning with a single after devastating miscue and then stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. It would have been poetic had he scored the winning run, but Ethan Skender grounded out to third to end the threat.
The hero of the game in the end might have been reliever Carter Loewen. The hard-throwing right-hander would have had a save if not for Little's drop, but he recovered and retired the next batter to keep the game tied. Then in the 10th, he kept the free runner at second from scoring before striking out Rocchio with the go-ahead run on third to end the inning. His shutdown frame gave Lopez a chance to win the game in the bottom half. Loewen earned the win for his trouble.
"It was huge," Contreras said of Loewen's performance. "He hasn't had too much success going two innings, so it's big for his confidence. One of the reasons I ran out there (after Little's drop) was just to calm the situation down, let the guys know that everything's fine, it's a tie ballgame, let's get one more out and then we'll take our chances. (Loewen) was pumped up (after retiring the side in the 10th). ... Those are the moments right there that can teach you a lot of things, that can show you what you have inside."
To even get to the ninth with the lead, the TinCaps needed some heroics from Little in the seventh. With two outs and Fort Wayne trailing 3-2, the outfielder scored from third on a wild pitch despite the ball beating him to the plate by a good two steps. He danced around the tag in one of the highlight plays of the season so far, declining to slide and instead pulling up short to avoid the tag before putting his foot on the plate a split second prior to being tagged. Dwanya Williams-Sutton, who continued his torrid hitting that was not interrupted at all by a six-game absence for a concussion, then doubled home the go-ahead run on the next pitch.
After the game, Williams-Sutton, who was batting when Little scored the tying run, laughed as he explained what he saw on the play, with Little listening from a few feet away.
"It was kind of scary because – I don't want to say this, but I don't know if he got the foot across the plate," Williams-Sutton said, smiling widely. "I don't know, but the umpire called him safe so we're going to leave it at that."
The TinCaps could laugh after a wild, streak-breaking victory. It was nowhere near a perfect game, but it's much easier to learn necessary lessons after a win.