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Ben Smith

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TinCaps first baseman Travis Whitmore catches a fly ball in the top of the fourth inning Wednesday against Lansing.

In short series, small plays become big deals

– There goes the difference in this thing, pelting down the line like an encyclopedia salesman is chasing him. That’s Travis Jankowski, trailing smoke and flame. That’s the baseball bounding straight into the hole, a meal ready to eat for Lansing’s shortstop.

It sets up as a routine 6-3 putout, as things unfold at Parkview Field in the sixth inning Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Midwest League playoffs. It sets up as glove down, glove up, dig it out, gun it to first, see ya down the road.

Except Jankowski is moving now, legs churning.

And the shortstop is nonchalanting it a bit – not much, maybe an eyeblink or so, maybe a fraction of a second or so late in coming up throwing.

And now Jankowski is well down the line … farther down the line … Farther down the line …

The ball arrives. Jankowski arrives. It’s Jankowski by a nose.

Instead of the third out of the inning, it’s a base hit and a run, Austin Hedges racing home from third. And this is what playoff baseball comes down to, moments like this, an ounce or two of effort like this.

It’s the difference between an out and a run. It’s one thread in a narrative that ends, three innings later, with a 5-2 TinCaps win that means the world when Game 1 is the first of only three.

“In a short series, the first game is always the biggest one,” Jankowski said later. “It was real big to take the early lead.”

And his sixth-inning hit, one of two on the night for the kid from Stony Brook U.?

“It really helps the team win, getting the kind of cheaper hits and the infield singles, just kind of legging hits out,” Jankowski said. “It was a 1-2 changeup and I just kind of capped it and figured I’d better start running. So I just took off.”

And, no, that didn’t win it for your TinCaps on Wednesday night, but it sure didn’t lose it, either. And that means something when it’s a short series and runs come dear, and everything hangs on doing what you’ve done all year to get here, only doing it better.

“Every pitch means something (in a short series),” TinCaps manager Jose Valentin said Wednesday, before sending James Needy out to face Noah Syndegaard and the Lugnuts. “You can’t afford to make a mistake, because one mistake can decide a game.”

He was talking pitching at the time, how it’s different in the minors, where a manager has different priorities, even in the playoffs. But the same principles apply elsewhere, too: You can’t afford to make mistakes – or, if you do, you can’t afford not to make a few plays to balance them out.

The TinCaps made their share of mistakes, including three infield errors. But Needy scattered five hits across five innings, and four relievers gave up three hits and no runs across four innings, and the TinCaps got Lansing starter Noah Syndegaard deep in his pitch count early and chased him after four innings.

“You look at the size of our bullpen, I think we’re in better shape than Lansing,” Valentin said.

And the rest of it? The timely hits, the execution, that dash for the bag from Jankowski, the leadoff man who’s now hit safely in 18 straight games?

“We just kept the pressure on,” Valentin said.

“I think that’s the only way we can win. Put some pressure on their defense. … (Jankowski) just made the plays when we needed it. Guy at the top of the lineup, he’s the guy who can drive the bus.”

And after that … all aboard.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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