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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Reliever Johnny Barbato had 10 holds during the season and was one of seven relief pitchers who saw time in the TinCaps’ 2-game, first-round series win over Lansing.

Bullpen proved pivotal for TinCaps

– Fort Wayne relief pitcher Luis De La Cruz entered Thursday’s game against Lansing at Cooley Law School Stadium with runners on first and third.

There were two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game. Nick Baligod then stole second, putting two runners in scoring position.

De La Cruz did what Fort Wayne relievers did all series against the Lugnuts – got the big out. De La Cruz struck out Gustavo Pierre to end the threat.

Fort Wayne’s bullpen did not give up a run in the two-game sweep of the Eastern Division opening-round series against Lansing. Relievers pitched 9 1/3 scoreless innings in helping the TinCaps advance to the Eastern Division championship, where they face Lake County. The best-of-three series begins today at Parkview Field.

“The bullpen is the reason why where we are at right now,” Fort Wayne manager Jose Valentin said after the series-clinching 9-6 victory. “Those guys have been unbelievable. I don’t hesitate. Whoever I put on the mound, I have a lot of confidence in those guys.”

Fort Wayne relievers gave up eight hits and struck out 13 batters.

“Bullpen-wise, and the whole staff-wise, everybody has been throwing strikes,” closer Matt Stites said. “If you throw strikes, the defense will help you out behind you. You’ve got Jace Peterson at shortstop, (Travis) Jankowski and (Kyle) Gaedele in the outfield, you’ve got great guys tracking down balls for you.”

Stites picked up saves in both of the wins. He had 13 saves in the regular season and a microscopic 0.74 ERA. Stites struck out 60 and gave up just three walks.

“It’s nice to have a guy like that in the bullpen to close the games,” Valentin said. “He can go two innings, whatever. He wants to be there, he wants to be the guy to close every game.”

Johnny Barbato had 10 holds, tied for second in the Midwest League. Barbato, James Jones, Daniel Cropper, De La Cruz and Cody Hebner pitched in relief in the opening round. Leo and Indiana Tech product Brandon Alger pitched in both games. The left-handed pitcher joined the team for the playoffs.

“Those guys have been great for us all year. The reason, they are not afraid. They go out there and try to be aggressive instead of trying to strike everybody out. They make the pitches when they need it. They are smart about location,” Valentin said.

“Barbato, Alger, everybody contributes. When you put it together, it’s tough to beat a team like that.”