There are 15 days remaining in the Frontier League’s regular season and they promise to be dramatic.
The league office couldn’t have a scripted a better or tighter playoff race than the one currently unfolding. The top six teams overall make next month’s playoffs, and entering tonight’s schedule the teams in spots Nos. 1 through 7 are separated by only five games.
In the East Division, the top four teams are so tightly packed in the standings that you can’t run a piece of dental floss between them. Southern Illinois is in first place with the Wild Things, Evansville and the league’s hottest team, Lake Erie, tied for second place and only a half-game behind the Miners.
The Wild Things had an opportunity to be in sole possession of first place but lost the nightcap of a doubleheader Wednesday against West Division leader River City, 3-0, at Consol Energy Park.
Washington won the opening game, 7-4, as closer Jonathan Kountis tied the league’s single-season record by getting his 28th save.
Over the next two weeks, the standings are sure to change often, so Wild Things manager had a message for his players.
“When you win, you don’t have to look at the scoreboard,” he said. “I’ve told these guys to keep in mind two things. The first is to control what you can control. The second is to enjoy the journey. Everyone wants to look ahead to Sept. 4 (the final day of the season), but that’s not what life and baseball is about. You have to live in the moment. You have to control what you’ll do in today’s game. If you don’t, then you’re going to lose and you’ll never get that game back.”
Washington would like to have back the nightcap against the Rascals, who have the league’s best record at 51-32. River City starter Joe Cuda (2-1), who entered the game with a 5.91 ERA, baffled the Wild Things for 5 2/3 innings with an assortment of offspeed breaking balls. Relievers Patrick Crider and Gabe Shaw then finished off a three-hit shutout.
“We have to be happy with a split because that’s the way the chips fell,” Bozzuto said. “It was nice to win Game 1, but we couldn’t generate any offense in the second game.”
Zach LeBarron (1-3) started for Washington and was working a shutout with two outs and nobody on base in the top of the fourth. Joe Staley, the Rascals’ cleasnup hitter, worked a walk and Brian McConkey singled. Matt Purnell then replaced LeBarron, but he gave a run-scoring single to Hector Crespo and a two-run single to Jon Myers for the game’s only scoring.
Relievers Pat Butler and Chris O’Hare combined for three hitless innings of relief after the fourth, but Washington’s offense never pushed a baserunner as far as third base against Cuda (eight strikeouts) and the Rascals’ bullpen. Shaw got the final three outs for his 23rd save.
“We still have a chance to win the series. Win two out of three – that’s what we need to do,” Bozzuto said.
Kountis has been summoned from the bullpen so many times this season to work out of dicey last-inning situations that when the right-hander from Akron, Ohio, finally put his name in the league record book it seemed a rather ho-hum affair.
Kountis got the final three in Washington’s 7-4 victory. His 28 saves ties the league’s single-season record set in 2011 by Joliet’s Ryan Quigley. Kountis has saved 57 percent of Washington’s 49 wins.
Kountis’ hitless and scoreless seventh inning followed starter Zac Fuesser and reliever Al Yevoli (3-4). Fuesser entered the game leading the league in ERA but he gave up four runs in 4 2/3 innings. The Wild Things, however, scored six runs over the first three innings.
Yevoli retired all four batters he faced over 1 1/3 innings, which were interrupted by a 23-minute rain delay after the fifth inning, then tuned the game to Kountis.
Fuesser says it’s hard to imagine where the Wild Things would be without Kountis at the back of the bullpen.
“Closer is one of the hardest roles on the pitching staff,” Fuesser said. “Not many pitchers can do it. It takes somebody who is consistent and understands his role. Kountis is ready to pitch every night.”
Washington took a 1-0 lead in the first inning against River City’s Bryce Shafer (2-1), who was making only his fourth start of the season. Scott Kalamar, who was 3-for-4, singled, stole second and scored when Carter Bell tripled to right centerfield on a 3-0 pitch.
The Wild Things scored four times in the second, getting a bases-loaded two-run single from Garrett Rau and a two-run double from Kalamar.
Myers, who had two doubles, scored in the top of the third on a two-out single by Eric Williams, but Washington got the run back in the bottom of the inning. Designated hitter Maxx Garrett greeted reliever Ryan Brockett with an opposite-field home run, his sixth of the year.
McConkey hit his 12th homer of the season in the fourth, and River City knocked out Fuesser in the fifth by scoring two runs to pull to within 6-4.
The Wild Things gave Yevoli and Kountis some margin for error with an insurance run in the sixth. Bell drew a leadoff walk, stole second and third bases and scored when Garrett struck out on a third strike that Staley, the Rascals’ catcher.
“When you’re a closer, you usually don’t have much margin for error. It’s hard to pitch the last inning. I know I can’t do it,” said Fuesser, who spent five years as a relief pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.
After converting 27 of his first 28 save opportunities, Kountis was coming off a shaky week, taking two losses. This time, he retired three hitters in a row after a throwing error allowed Curran Redal to reach base to start the seventh.
The save for Kountis was the 46th of his career in the Frontier League. He saved 18 games for Lake Erie in 2012.
The 3-0 loss was only the second time the Wild Things have been shut out. That’s tied with Schaumburg for the fewest in the league. … During their three-day layoff, the Wild Things signed three players and released three. Signed were pitcher Aaron Newcomb, shortstop Austin Wobrock and outfielder Andrew Heck. Released were pitcher Tyler Elrod, outfielder Pat Kregeloh and catcher Cole Martin. Newcomb was 9-6 with a 6.95 ERA for Gateway and made the Frontier League All-Star Game but was recently released by the Grizzlies. Wobrock is a rookie out of the University of Hawaii and Heck was Washington’s leading hitter in 2012. … Washington will retire the jersey No. 12 of former center fielder Chris Sidick prior to Friday night’s game against Gateway. Sidick, a Cecil native, played seven seasons (2005-11) and is the Frontier League’s career leader in almost every offensive category including games (588), at-bats (2,225), hits (635), runs (434), triples (56), total bases (1,001), hit by pitches (57) and walks (328). His 16 triples in 2006 remains the FL’s single-season record. Sidick also holds the Wild Things career record with 145 stolen bases. Sidick’s number will be the first to be retired by the Wild Things. Relief pitcher Al Yevoli currently wears No. 12 for Washington.