The TinCaps almost did it.
Trailing by seven runs after 2 1/2 innings and trailing by three entering the ninth inning, Fort Wayne missed completing a wild comeback by the slimmest of margins against visiting Lake County tonight. With two outs in the ninth, the tying run on second and the winning run on first, Fort Wayne slugger Seamus Curran jumped on a fastball and crushed it down the right-field line. If he'd been a split-second later, the ball would have been in the corner and the TinCaps would likely have won, but instead it hooked foul by a few feet and Curran eventually struck out swinging on a slider down and in to end a seventh consecutive Fort Wayne loss, this time by a 7-6 score. The TinCaps' longest losing streak of the season continued for another night and they are now a season-high nine games below .500.
The almost-comeback came after manager Anthony Contreras admitted his team had played "lackadaisical" baseball in a 12-3 loss in the series-opener. Contreras talked to his team prior to the game tonight about accountability and, outside of a rough start from right-hander Edwuin Bencomo, the TinCaps seemed much more locked in than they had been the previous night.
"(The mood in the clubhouse) is still pretty upbeat," said infielder Chris Givin, who went 2 for 3 with two walks tonight in his second game with the TinCaps after arriving from Double-A San Antonio. "At least me personally, I know we have the right guys to turn it around and start playing better baseball and start winning some ballgames.
"(Contreras)'s talk with us was kind of trying to hold us more accountable to how we're carrying ourselves throughout the day and throughout the game. Just being able to do what you can do, don't try to be anybody you're not. Just go out there and be who you are and the rest will take care of itself."
Givin blooped a single into right field off the very end of his bat during the ninth-inning rally and has been on base six times in his first two games in Fort Wayne (two hits and four walks). He noted that the scouting report on ninth-inning Lake County reliever Jerson Ramirez was that he likes to throw a lot of sliders, so the TinCaps tried to lay off the breaking pitches and sit on fastballs. The result was an uprising that included an eight-pitch at-bat to start the inning from Jonny Homza, two singles, an intentional walk after the count had gone to 3-0 and a deep fly ball to the warning track that looked like it might go for extra bases but instead turned into a loud sacrifice fly.
"It's never easy when you get down big so early," Givin said. "Our coaches just reminded to us to keep chipping away. It took a collective one through nine to keep inching our way back. We almost had it at the end, which would have been pretty cool."
Despite Contreras's pregame speech, the game started about as badly as the TinCaps could have imagined. Bencomo served up a home run to Lake County's Will Brennan on the very first pitch of the game, No. 2 hitter Jose Tena doubled two pitches later and came around to score and Bencomo then walked the first three hitters in the second inning on the way to giving up four more runs. By the time he exited, it was 6-0.
Left-hander Erik Sabrowski, who was scheduled to make his first pro start before the TinCaps audibled because of some rain in the forecast, entered the game and gave up another run in the third inning to extend the deficit to 7-0. Sabrowski settled down after that, however, and turned in another excellent performance, giving up only the one run in four innings while striking out five. He retired nine of the final 10 hitters he faced (five on strikeouts) and the only batter that reached during that stretch came on an error.
Sabrowski continues to flash one of the best combinations of stuff and command in High-A Central. He has 26 strikeouts in 14 innings with Fort Wayne.
"Bencomo needs to be able to throw strikes, get guys out, do whatever a pitcher is able to do when he takes the mound," Contreras said. "But for Erik to go out there and give up that one run, it was huge. He did what he was supposed to do. ... It's pretty much what he's been doing. He probably could have kept going, but we're building him up slowly and hopefully he can go longer as we move forward."
The TinCaps spent the rest of the game chipping away. The comeback really began when shortstop Justin Lopez crushed a line drive in the sixth inning that left his bat at 105 mph and cleared the right-field wall for a two-run homer, bringing Fort Wayne within striking distance at 7-3. It was the continuation of a trend for Lopez, who has homered three times since June 24 (half his season total) and has three doubles, two homers and seven RBI in July already. A Fort Wayne veteran who scuffled through much of May, Lopez might be turning his season around at the right time.
"He gets streaky a little bit and he has to be able to understand what the pitchers are trying to do," Contreras said of the 21-year-old infielder. "There's times where he's feeling good and he can let it fly and there's other times where he needs to cut down his swing. I think he's learning that slowly. We want him to be aggressive on guys that are feeding him fastballs. ... He's been working hard to try to improve his game and we've gone through our ups and downs together and it's good to see somebody you've been around so long have success."
In the ninth inning, the Captains intentionally walked Tirso Ornelas to load the bases with one out. Contreras then sent into a surprise pinch-runner for Ornelas, calling on outfielder Grant Little, who hadn't seen the field since June 26. The speedy Little had been in the ribs by a pitch in South Bend, Contreras said, the same ribs he had broken in 2019, and Fort Wayne has been cautious with putting him back in the lineup. That could change in the coming days, which would create more options for the TinCaps in the outfield.
Fort Wayne's performance tonight could be called a moral victory because of the comeback and the way the TinCaps grinded their way back into the game at-bat after at-bat in the late innings. After seven straight losses, however, moral victories are not going to cut it. Fort Wayne is now 1-7 on its 12-game homestand and needs to start actually winning on the scoreboard, otherwise it will be too far back to take part in the High-A Central pennant race down the stretch of the regular season.