The TinCaps don't have a lot of answers right now.
One night after finally snapping a seven-game losing streak, a milestone that made it seem as though they could start to build some positive momentum, Fort Wayne struck out 14 times, went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position and saw its final six hitters retired in order in a 3-1 loss to the Lake County Captains at Parkview Field that was its eighth defeat in nine games.
It was the continuation of a trend that has lasted all homestand: the TinCaps are 2-5 in the last two weeks in games decided by two or fewer runs. Manager Anthony Contreras couldn't pinpoint a reason for the string of close defeats and pitcher Matt Waldron, who took a hard-luck loss after an outstanding start tonight, was unable to provide much insight, either.
"It's just a timing thing," Waldron said. "We're fighting hard and it's coming down to the end. We're fighting, we're giving our best, but I've got no – I'm not sure."
Sabermetrics and statisticians would say that close games are generally just a product of luck and that teams mostly go about .500 in such games. Of course, that doesn't guarantee the TinCaps will have a run of good luck in the future, just that the bad luck is statistically unlikely to last. It also doesn't do anything to make a run of tight games that go the wrong way less frustrating. Fort Wayne is in a rut and it's going to need some clutch hitting to get going again. Some better bullpen work wouldn't hurt either: though it didn't end up mattering, Ramon Perez gave up a run in the eighth tonight that pushed Lake County's lead to 3-1, doubling the size of the rally the TinCaps needed in the ninth. There just aren't a whole lot of reliable arms out of Fort Wayne's bullpen in the middle innings at this point. Jose Geraldo and Carter Loewen have been pretty good at the back end, but the bridge from the starters to them has been filled with potholes.
The bright spot tonight was Waldron, who seems to have fully adjusted to the knuckleball-heavy pitch mix the Padres have pressed him to adopt. He's throwing the specialty pitch more than ever and has seemed to settle into throwing it more consistently for strikes, which was a problem for a couple of starts, including one against South Bend in which he walked seven. He walked only one tonight and none after the first inning.
"I think (the knuckleball) is a little bit better (than early in the season) movement-wise and knocking the spin down," Waldron said. "That definitely is better. I think mainly I'm just throwing it for strikes better. It's really important to have count leverage with that pitch, it's hard to work back into counts when you're behind, so that first one is really what's helping me a lot, getting that in for a strike."
Waldron's increased usage of the knuckleball has helped him pitch deeper into games and look stronger as he goes. Tonight, he became the first TinCap to pitch seven innings multiple times this season and his final trip through the Lake County order was arguably his best: in his last three innings, he gave up only two soft hits, struck out four and retired the last six hitters he faced. His final pitch was his hardest of the night, a 93 mph fastball for a swinging strikeout. The combination of the knuckleball with the low-80s slider and low-90s fastball is a potent one, especially when he's throwing even one of the off-speed pitches for strikes.
"Once you start throwing one for a strike, you can start looking for another pitch," Waldron said. "Then it kind of builds up throughout the outing, at least that's how it felt. Once I get that knuckleball working, I can mix in a slider or a fastball and once that starts working, I can bounce back and forth with those. So I definitely think they work together, establishing one pitch at a time."
Waldron's record dropped to 2-4, but he seems to be on track for a strong finish to the season. The TinCaps aren't on that track right now, but they don't seem to be that far off. Unfortunately, it's unclear what it will take to get them to turn the corner after several difficult weeks. Ending the homestand with a couple of strong performances this weekend would certainly help.
Notes: Prior to the game, the TinCaps announced that lefty reliever Danny Denz had been activated off the Injured List. Denz has not yet made his pro debut after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Padres out of the University of Memphis in 2020. ... Komets broadcaster Shane Albahrani was a guest broadcaster in the TinCaps’ radio booth, a week after he called the Komets’ victory over the South Carolina Stingrays that clinched the Kelly Cup.