ROUND ROCK, TX – Twenty feet from each other were two sets of metal double doors. On one side, the Round Rock Express, fresh off their 11th consecutive victory, were full of smiles, high-fives and loud music. In the other, the San Antonio Missions, the last team to defeat the Express 12 days prior, were eerily quiet but for minimal noise coming from shuffling, streaming showers and the quiet chewing of a post-game meal. On the floor, grey jerseys stacked a foot-and-a-half high in the middle of a clubhouse that should have had the downtime activities reversed.
What was more disconcerting in the visitor's clubhouse was the fact that since the 4-0 shutout against Round Rock in San Antonio, the Missions had lost 11 of their previous 12 games and eight-in-a-row after falling to Round Rock 9-7. The Missions were victims of a hanging slider; a slider that would normally break, a slider, which on any other evening, against any other team, in any other ballpark, falls under the bat for a game-ending strike three.
In every other rendition, mighty Casey struck out.
Rewind your minds to Wednesday evening; the Missions were 1-4 on their road trip, leaving Midland with only a win to open the series in the first game of a doubleheader the previous Saturday. San Antonio was poised to return to the second place position in the Texas League's West Division after losing it to Midland. Not only could they reclaim their position, but the team could also make up crucial ground against the division leaders as the first half's end looms near in a four-game set at Round Rock's Dell Diamond.
RHP Juan Done's last start was against these same Express, albeit a losing effort in which he was on the receiving end of the first grand slam home run at Wolff Stadium this season, surrendering the shot to Round Rock 2B Ivanon Coffie. Coffie's assault on the Missions would continue this series as well.
Doñe pitched solidly for four innings, allowing only one walk on three hits. San Antonio's bats provided what to most would be a solid lead. IF Hunter Brown led the way with three RBI and one run scored and CF Dustin Delucchi scored twice after leading off the first and fifth inning with a walk and a single respectively.
The bottom of the fifth inning was where Doñe hit the proverbial wall. Up 5-0 entering the home half, Doñe and the Missions defense allowed six runs (five earned) to relinquish a lead that they would not recover from. Newest Missions LHP Jared Thomas and RHP Ben Christensen (activated prior to Wednesday's series opener) provided decent relief as Thomas allowed only an insurance run on a wild pitch. Round Rock's bullpen was better this evening as they held the Missions scoreless the remainder of the contest to secure a 7-5 victory.
After the game, Missions C Luis Oliveros praised his latest battery mates, especially the 23-year-old Thomas.
"Their fastballs moved a lot," Oliveros said. "Jared has a very, very good fastball. He has a lot of power. He throws the ball because he wants to throw the ball. He wants to play. He wants to pitch."
Thursday night's 8-7 defeat proved that no matter how many numbers are crunched; the games must still be played.
Solo home runs in the second and third innings by 1B/DH John Lindsey and Delucchi were nullified by a three-spot for the Express in the bottom of the third. The Missions fought back however, taking advantage of 3B Greg Dobbs' leadoff single and OF Greg Jacobs' walk to start the fourth. Lindsey's 2-run double wrestled the lead back and his subsequent run on an error later that inning led to a 5-3 lead after four innings. In the fifth, another RBI single for Lindsey and an RBI double for DH/1B Ryan Balfe, coupled with a solo home run for Express SS Tommy Whiteman saw the lead increase to 7-4 in the Missions favor.
The Express added one run in the bottom of the seventh to make it 7-5 entering the bottom of the eighth inning. RHP Rick Guttormson stepped in to prevent the Express' offensive firepower from spreading, but 55 minutes of subsequent rain felt it could do better. The overall 70-minute rain delay was too long for Guttormson to continue. Enter LHP Tim Rall. Rall entered the game with runners on first and second to pitch to Coffie, a batter hitting below his weight (.148 to 190 pounds). Three pitches later, Coffie would solidify his position as the bane of the Missions bullpen, sending Rall's pitch 398 feet over the wall in right center field to take a one-run lead.
San Antonio would not go quietly, though, as OF Shin-soo Choo caught a pitch and hit it just over 404 feet. Choo also hit the pitch to a crevice to the left of straight-away center field in which the yellow line on top of a green wall sat at 405 feet. On-deck, though, was Dobbs, who this season has made his living by hitting over .450 with runners in scoring position and two outs; but when you hit the ball 45 percent of the time, you miss it 55 percent. Dobbs stranded Choo on a knee-buckling pitch in which his swing could not stop in time. Ballgame over, Express win 8-7.
Prior to Friday's game, a few of the Missions put extra time inside the batting cages in an attempt to fix kinks in their swing. One Mission was particularly proud that he seemed to solve a problem in his batting stance. Jacobs demonstrated what he had discovered the evening before as he was on-deck during Dobbs' ninth-inning at-bat.
"I caught myself leaning over the plate," Jacobs said as he assumed his "toilet-seat" batting position.
Swinging his black Louisville Slugger from both a leaning position and his corrected, perfectly vertical chin-chest-waist stance, Jacobs demonstrated how his swing, uncorrected, would cause him to follow-through with only one arm. By correcting his stance, he was able to use both arms to swing through, and therefore, use more of his natural power to drive the ball.
Jacobs' work in practice translated to that evening's game as he went 1-for-3 and was able to drive the ball to left field in a position that allowed him to collect his first extra-base hit of the series. The hit, as did many others that night, did not translate into many runs for both sides as the Missions fell 3-2. The Express' game-winning runs did come in unorthodox fashion, however, as RHP Emiliano Fruto was saddled with the task of securing one out after the bases were left loaded by starting RHP Gustavo Martinez. Rall relieved Martinez to record one out against Coffie, the batter who went yard the previous inning.
Fruto walked OF Charlton Jimerson to score the game-tying run and hit LF Jon Topolski on a full count to score the eventual game-winner.
Over 11,000 people were on hand to receive promotional "trucker caps" and the game was a series-ending game on a holiday weekend. This game was the epitome of Minor League Baseball as much as "Mom and Apple Pie". Many of the Missions felt confident as always entering the game and demonstrated as much during pre-game practice. Balfe seemed to reclaim his swing hitting a ball above the Dell Diamond's right-field bleachers, OF/DH Cristian Guerrero continued his power display away from home and Oliveros narrowly missed hitting two fans in the upper-deck with a well-placed BP home run.
The first three innings were not the Missions ideal way to break out of a funk as the Express scored a run in each of the innings, but San Antonio continued the aggressiveness that manager Dave Brundage is known organization-wide for. The Missions capitalized on a fourth-inning leadoff double by Brown who later scored on a passed ball, Balfe singled home Choo and IF Rob Gandolfo knocked Balfe in to tie the game after four innings.
The teams traded runs for an eventual 7-5 Missions lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning. Realizing that this could be the team's breakthrough game, Brundage made defensive substitutions and a pitching change that resulted in RHP Renee Cortez entering the game to secure the save and end San Antonio's seven-game losing streak and moved Gandolfo to second base. Gandolfo secured the first out with a leaping catch to rob RF Mike Hill. Round Rock would come within one run on a RBI single by DH Dax Norris. Norris was pinch-run for by RHP Tim McClaskey who would have a chance to tie the game on a double to right center by C Hector Gimenez.
But Round Rock underestimated the throwing arm of Delucchi, and more importantly, Gandolfo, the cutoff man. Delucchi's throw was cut off at the edge of the outfield by Gandolfo, who in one motion, turned and threw a strike to Oliveros for the second out, beating McClaskey by two steps.
The decision was made to intentionally walk Coffie, who had hit three of his four home runs this season against San Antonio pitching. Standing on-deck was Jimerson, a man who was profiled by the Austin American-Statesman in Thursday's edition about hitting a home run at the Dell Diamond that settled over 600 feet away from home plate exactly one week prior to this moment following the intentional pass before him.
Jimerson only needed about 360 feet to send San Antonio to their clubhouse at the Dell Diamond one last time quietly, but for minimal shuffling, showers streaming and the quiet chewing of a post-game meal.
Joe Ruiz has a neverending supply of energy and passion for Missions baseball. Drop him a line at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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