To remain at the top of the East Division of the Frontier League, the Washington Wild Things are depending on dynamite and a match.
The dynamite takes the form of right fielder Stewart Ijames, who is on one of the best home run streaks of his professional career, and the match is center fielder Daniel Poma, who seems to ignite the offense most nights.
The two were at it again Wednesday at Consol Energy Park, where the Wild Things won the first game of a doubleheader, 2-1, against Southern Illinois, a team Washington wants to keep in the rear view mirror in the standings.
Ijames belted his 13th home run of the season and Poma scored the game-winning run from third base on a wild pitch with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning.
The Wild Things went on to sweep the doubleheader, taking the second game 3-1. Washington (26-15) extended its lead over second-place Evansville (23-15) to 1 1/2 games and to four over Southern Illinois (22-19).
In Game 1, Washington went into the bottom of the eighth inning with just five hits. Poma came up with one out and took a 3-1 pitch from relief pitcher Steve Brase off his left elbow to get on base. Garrett Rau executed a perfect hit-and-run to push Poma to third. Brase then uncorked a wild pitch that careened towards the Wild Things dugout as Poma crossed the plate.
“I was just trying to get on base anyway I could,” said Poma. “I just wanted to get something going.”
Poma was on base three times, walking in the first inning, singling to left in the third and getting hit by the pitch in the eighth.
“He’s the catalyst for the ballclub,” said Washington manager Bart Zeller. “When he gets on base, he can steal a base and get to second. He can make a lot of things happen for us.”
Ijames’ home run came on a fourth inning curve ball by Southern Illinois starter Matt Bywater, who went seven strong innings. It was his fifth home run in the last six games and knotted the game 1-1.
“I had no clue (about the home run binge),” said Ijames. “I just play the game the best I can.”
This was Ijames’ first game since getting hit in the lower left part of his jaw with a throw while sliding into second base during a game at Lake Erie Saturday. He sat out Sunday’s game as a precaution and the Wild Things had two days off before the doubleheader.
“I think that was the first time I was hit in the face by a ball while sliding into a base,” Ijames said. “It’s never happened before.”
Another key moment in the game came in the second, when Southern Illinois took a 1-0 lead. But it could have been much worse. Washington starter Scott Dunn hit third baseman Steve Marino with a pitch with one out and gave up a single to left to shortstop Ryan Cavan that sent Marino to third. Catcher Phil Butler drove in Marino with a single to center. Dunn then hit centerfielder Tyler Booth to load the bases. But Dunn settled down and got second baseman Jon Eisen to pop out to short left field and right fielder Jay Austin to fly out to right field.
“We escaped a couple of threats,” said Zeller. “It could have been 3-0 there.”
Zeller replaced Dunn after 80 pitches and one out in the seventh with Al Yevoli. He gave up a single to pinch-hitter Matt Howard but retired the next two batters. Pat Butler relieved Yevoli after a single to left fielder Aaron Gates to open the eighth and retired the next three batters. The Miners left eight men on base.
“We missed a lot of opportunities,” said Southern Illinois manager Mike Pinto. “You can’t do that and win games.”
The Miners held a 1-0 lead in the second game, too, but also lost it later on. And under similar circumstances.
Poma opened the fifth inning by reaching first base after being hit by a pitch by Miners’ starter Matt Ramirez. One out later, C.J. Beatty doubled to right field, sending Poma to third base.
Ijames was up next and the Miners decided to intentionally walk him. But Ramirez’s first pitch glanced off the glove of Matt Jones for a passed ball that allowed Poma to score and Beatty to move to third. After Ijames walked, Carter Bell tried a squeeze bunt but Beatty was thrown out at the plate.
Connor Lewis then doubled in Ijames and Bell to make it 3-1.
“It’s nice to beat a team that is running up your back,” said Zeller. “We have to try to keep getting them. This team is very resilient.”
Zach LeBarron gave up one unearned run in four innings for Washington but Matt Purnell (3-1) got the win with 1 2/3 shutout innings. Jonathan Kountis pitched the seventh for his 17th save.
“This series is huge,” Ijames said. “That team is right behind us. We want to push the gap further. Every game there is something on the line. That’s what makes the competition more fun.”
The Wild Things placed right-handed pitcher Chris Phelan on the suspended list and infielder Yeury Tejada has returned to his home in the Dominican Republic. Phelan had a 5-2 record with a 4.36 ERA in eight starts, striking out 19 and walking six in 43 1/3 innings. Tejada hit .244, going 10-for-41 in 13 games. Zeller stressed that putting Phelan on the suspended list was a technicality. “He did nothing wrong,” Zeller said. “I know it sounds harsh. We could have released him but then he could have pitched for someone else.” Zeller said a move could be made today. The roster is now at 22. “We’ll probably go to 23 for the time being,” Zeller said.