FORT WAYNE – TinCaps manager Jose Valentin saw reason for optimism after his squad was swept by Bowling Green during Fort Wayne’s last homestand.
That stance seemed prophetic after Fort Wayne took three of four on the road against Great Lakes and returned to Parkview Field for a 7-6 marathon win against Midwest League Eastern Division-leading South Bend on Wednesday.
The game went a season-long 16 innings.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly or nice or cheap or whatever,” Valentin said. “This time of the year, a win is a win. Lately, we’re playing better baseball.”
The TinCaps (66-61, 23-35 second half) battled the Silver Hawks (77-51, 33-26) every inning, took advantage of South Bend mistakes, got hits in clutch situations and were sharp on the mound. It wasn’t perfect, but it harkened back to the first half, when Fort Wayne finished 17 games above .500, just one game behind the Silver Hawks, and earned a playoff spot.
“Today was one of those days that we get down, tied them up, get down again, tied them up,” Valentin said. “The guys just went in there and battled their tails off all the way to the end.”
Fort Wayne starter Bryan Rodriguez had a so-so outing, giving up eight hits and three earned runs in five innings. He had seven strikeouts.
But the TinCaps’ relief was sharp, including five strikeouts in three innings from Ruben Mejia, to keep the game tied as it headed to the ninth.
Closer Roman Madrid looked like his old self, too, dominating with his slider and striking out two batters to send South Bend down in order.
After South Bend’s Thomas Brendel set the TinCaps down in order in the ninth, the teams were off to extras for the second time this season tied 4-4.
Fort Wayne reliever Jorge Guzman came on for three innings of scoreless relief, only to be matched by Enrique Burgos of South Bend. After 17 hits in six innings, the teams had five singles from the seventh to the end of the 14th.
“Mejia went in there, three good innings,” Valentin said. “Guzman went in there a little bit shaky, but then he made some pitches.”
The game nearly turned in the 15th, when Matthew Chabot – the TinCaps’ sixth pitcher of the game – gave up a two-run single to Silver Hawks shortstop Andrew Velazquez that made it 6-4.
The TinCaps didn’t quit then, either.
Center fielder Mallex Smith led off with a bunt single, and second baseman Reynaldo Bruguera cracked a double down the left field line to score him. Fort Wayne then got Bruguera over to third on a sacrifice bunt.
A wild pitch scored Bruguera, and the game was tied again.
“The guys never gave up on it,” Valentin said. “Not a well played game, but a great battle.”
The TinCaps set a franchise record for strikeouts with the 20th of the game in the top of the 16th inning, and in the bottom of the frame, Fort Wayne finally ended it.
The TinCaps loaded the bases with no outs off position player Pedro Ruiz, who became the seventh pitcher of the night for South Bend. Bruguera came up after a fielder’s choice out at home and drove in the walk-off run on a single to center field.
“It’s good to just kind of start playing better baseball because you want to go into the playoffs with the same enthusiasm, the same rhythm,” Valentin said. “We have to put everything together – good defense, good pitching and be able to get some guys in with two outs and men on third.”
The TinCaps had played 13 innings twice before this year: a July 13 win against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and a loss at home against the West Michigan Whitecaps on June 25.
The renewed effort to end the second half bodes well for Fort Wayne’s playoff chances. The TinCaps will likely have to face Bowling Green and South Bend in the first and second rounds, respectively.
Wednesday’s game, with 4,753 in paid attendance, and the last series, Fort Wayne proved it can do more than compete against those teams.
The TinCaps can win, too.
“Late in the year, I think it’s good – especially in games like this, a long one,” Valentin said. “The bottom line is we’re moving forward. It’s about just getting everybody in the same groove.”