For most of the season, the TinCaps have gone as their bullpen has gone. When the bullpen has struggled, which it has for large chunks of the year, Fort Wayne has had trouble stringing wins together despite generally good starting pitching and some strong offensive performances. When the relievers have pitched well, however, the TinCaps have been successful.
Don't look now, but Fort Wayne is rolling. The denizens of Parkview Field won for the fourth time in five games tonight, beating visiting Dayton 3-1 behind a suddenly-dominant bullpen. The win was a significant one in the High-A Central standings, elevating Fort Wayne out of the cellar in the East Division into fifth place and dropping Dayton out of first place in the division and out of the second and final league playoff spot. The TinCaps are currently six games out of that final spot and they have a plethora of teams in front of them in the standings so it would still take a magnificent run down the stretch to catch the leaders, but Fort Wayne is showing signs that it can make things interesting and have some fun doing it.
"The energy's been good," manager Anthony Contreras said of his team. "We've been joking around a lot, having a lot of good vibes in the clubhouse, out on the field, just trying to stay as relaxed as possible. We know when it gets to the end of July, August, the dog days can be a grind. You try to keep it as loose as possible, try not to think of the length of the season, but try to focus on the day-to-day process and these guys have done a good job.
"We've had numerous talks and meetings about stuff that we need to do to get better. The relievers have stepped up big time over the course of the last 2-3 weeks, our hitters are competing at the plate and we're playing really good defense right now. When you can do that, you're going to be in ballgames, not always result in a win, but you're going to give yourself an opportunity to win some games."
The TinCaps' pitchers, especially their relievers, gave them a chance to win tonight. The bullpen pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out nine and giving up only four hits in relief of starter Anderson Espinoza (more on him below). In the last two games, Fort Wayne relievers have given up just one run in 12 1/3 innings. That's all the more impressive because two of the team's best relief pitchers, Carter Loewen and Jose Geraldo, are on the IL.
"The bullpen's been one of the spots all year that's kind of been up and down, so it's good to see these guys string some outings together and back up our starters that have been pretty solid all year," Contreras said. "We're filling up the zone. Looking at the numbers, we only walked two guys tonight and struck out 15, so that's something to build on. When we don't have the offensive production, you're going to need your bullpen to step up like that."
It helps that the TinCaps have two of the hottest relievers in the league on their roster right now in Edwuin Bencomo and Austin Smith. Bencomo was ridiculously good tonight, throwing 2 1/3 shutout, hitless innings and striking out three in a row in the fifth, all with changeups. He got a parade of swing-and-misses with the change and he has now tossed 8 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings over his last four appearances after giving up eight runs in three innings in his previous two outings.
Smith, meanwhile, is in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his six-year minor-league career. The 2015 second-round pick, who pitched a scoreless seventh tonight, has thrown 10 1/3 shutout innings in a row over his last eight appearances – he hasn't surrendered an earned run in July. During that stretch, he's struck out 14 (two tonight) and given up only three hits.
"My slider's working for me and I'm throwing the fastball off that slider," Smith said. "That's really working for me, I'm getting ahead in counts and just having fun out there."
Not to be forgotten is Espinoza, who struck out a season-high six hitters, touching 97 mph with his fastball and showing off maybe the best curveball I've seen from him this year. Command continues to be an issue for him, however, and tonight he missed in the zone, giving up six hits, mostly on fastballs that caught too much of the plate. That's going to be an issue for him because hitters at High-A and higher levels can turn around 96-97 mph fastballs if they're over the plate. Still, his stuff remains as electric as anyone on the staff. Contreras said that Espinoza's pitch count could have gotten him through a season-high four innings tonight, but it took him 69 pitches to get through 2 2/3, so that wasn't possible. His twice-surgically-repaired arm looks strong, however.
"Honestly, I don't think it was his best showing," Contreras said of Espinoza. "I thought he pitched better in West Michigan (three shutout innings) and I think he'd tell you the same thing. We have to fill up the zone early, get early contact or put these guys away early and he has the ability to do that with the fastball and the secondary stuff he has. Granted, he only gave up one run and kept us in the game, so we'll take that, but I'm sure he'll say he's pitched better."
The TinCaps got all the offense they needed on an Agustin Ruiz two-run homer in the first inning, his 12th long ball of the season and second in the last three games. One night after stringing together 15 hits, it wasn't exactly the offensive performance Fort Wayne was looking for, but it was enough to depart with an exciting, momentum-building win. Don't look now, but the TinCaps might be figuring things out.