The TinCaps opened tonight with 54 games remaining in the 2021 regular season. Of those, exactly one-third, 18 of them, were against the Dayton Dragons. Fort Wayne came into the night 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Dragons in the division, but it will have plenty of chances to make up ground in the final seven weeks of the regular season.
Unfortunately for the TinCaps, their string of games against Dayton – which includes six matchups this week, six more in late August and then a final six-game series to close the season in September – began with a loss tonight, a 4-1 defeat in which Fort Wayne managed only four hits and squandered a solid start from young right-hander Carlos Guarate in his High-A debut.
The 20-year-old Guarate was one of the bright spots for the TinCaps in the series-opener, going five innings and giving up only two runs – one on a home run that cleared the fence by inches, the other on a two-out double that left-fielder Tirso Ornelas came inches away from catching – on four hits, taking only 64 pitches to get relatively deep into the game. Guarate admitted to being somewhat tired because he was still feeling the effects of a trip from Lake Elsinore, California, on Monday that was delayed prior to his connecting flight in Dallas. Still, he felt he could have gone an inning or two longer and it's likely he'll be able to pitch deeper into games later in the season.
Guarate who is the No. 17 prospect in the Padres farm system, throws a two-seam fastball, slider and changeup, but he said only his fastball was really working tonight. He did get his one strikeout with a very good slider that darted down and away with late movement and that's his out pitch on most nights.
"Given his crazy travel to get here, (I'm) super impressed," manager Anthony Contreras said of Guarate's performance. "I've always liked him since he was here in '19 (Guarate made one start with Low-A Fort Wayne in 2019) and to come out against a team with this record and the guys that he's facing, it was a good outing for him to start with us. We'll see where Sunday takes us, he's slated to start then as well, but for his first day here, it was a good showing."
An Agustin Ruiz home run was the other nice moment tonight for the TinCaps. The slugger had gone through something of a long-ball drought after mashing 10 in his first 38 games of the season: he hadn't hit one in his 18 games since June 26. No longer on pace to break the single-season home-run record in Fort Wayne (though he could make a run at Fernando Tatis's record of 21 if he gets hot in the back half of the schedule), Ruiz is still an important bat in the middle of the TinCaps' lineup and getting him going will be key to making sure the offense is humming down the stretch.
Unfortunately for Fort Wayne, Ruiz's long ball was its only extra-base hit and its hitters struck out 12 times. Ruiz himself fanned with two on and two out in the eighth inning while representing the tying run, one of several times in the game that TinCaps hitters (and in this case Contreras, as well) looked askance at the home-plate umpire after a called third strike.
Once again the Fort Wayne bullpen struggled as Sam Keating gave up a pair of runs in the eighth inning that turned a one-run deficit into a three-run deficit and made the TinCaps' comeback challenge much more difficult. The TinCaps are hurting right now with back-end bullpen arms Carter Loewen and Jose Geraldo on the IL and it could be something of a patchwork relief corps until they're back; Contreras said he wasn't sure when that would be yet.
The injuries to Loewen and Geraldo are part of a larger trend of high roster turnover for Fort Wayne in recent days, with starter Matt Waldron the latest to be promoted to Double-A this afternoon and reliever Fred Schlichtholz coming to town from San Antonio. Gabe Mosser is also on the IL, while Guarate has arrived, Danny Denz is off the IL and in the rotation, Michell Miliano is in the bullpen and Tyler Malone is the team's third catcher. It's a lot of changes for a team that had been relatively stable (by minor-league standards) early in the season.
"It's new opportunities," Contreras said. "We're in a good spot, roster's full, the guys that are on the roster are healthy, they're just going to have to pull their weight, pick up where the other guys left off and continue to put up good showings out there on the field and hope for the best."