By Chris Dugan
The Frontier League regular season consists of 96 games for each team. The Wild Things will need all 96 to determine where they will finish in the standings and play in the first round of the playoffs.
An East Division title, however, is no longer possible. That much was determined Wednesday night when the Evansville Otters defeated Washington, 10-5, in a wild game that had a little of everything, and the Southern Illinois Miners won, 9-1, at Lake Erie.
The results gave Southern Illinois (59-36) the East pennant and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Washington (57-38) and Evansville (56-37) are tied for second place and will meet Saturday in the wild-card game. The winner of tonight’s regular-season finale will host the wild-card game.
Washington entered Wednesday still with a chance to win the division title, but Evansville bolted to a lightning-quick 3-0 lead, self-destructed in the fifth inning, then took the lead for good with a two-out, two-run homer by Chris Elder in the seventh. The home run, which broke a 4-4 tie, came off reliever Matt Purnell (5-2) and one pitch after J.R. Higley drew a walk on a borderline 3-2 offering. As Elder circled the bases, Purnell was ejected by home-plate umpire Drew Ashcraft.
Elder’s home run to center field was his fourth of the season and the Otters’ third of the game.
Washington closed to within 6-5 in the bottom seventh on a pinch-hit double by Maxx Garrett, but the Wild Things couldn’t push across the tying run after putting runners on second and third with one out.
The Otters then delivered a knockout blow by scoring four runs in the eighth, which consecutive triples by second baseman Phillip Wilson and catcher Kolin Conner.
Twelve pitchers were used in the game. Former Wild Things reliever Anthony Collazo (5-2), the second of five Evansville pitchers, was winner.
If the Wild Things were going to win a division title, then the activity in the home team’s bullpen only three batters into the game was an alarming sign.
Before many in the crowd at Consol Energy Park could settle into their seat, the Wild Things fell behind 3-0. Two of the first seven pitches from Washington starter Shawn Blackwell went for home runs, including a two-run shot by league MVP Shayne Houck. The 23rd homer of the season by Houck came after Higley led off the game with a home run and Elder followed with a single.
Blackwell lasted only one-third of an inning as five of the six batters he faced reached base safely. Lefty reliever Zach LeBarron was summoned from the bullpen and brought some normalcy to the game, retiring the first 10 batters he faced.
The Wild Things squandered a golden opportunity in the fourth inning when they loaded the bases with no outs on consecutive singles by Scott Kalamar, Carter Bell and Jim Vahalik. However, Evansville starter Trevor Walch struck out both Jose Dore and Andrew Heck before Ryan Kresky grounded out.
The Otters made it 4-0 in the fifth by attempting a double steal. With runners on the corners, Elder was caught in a rundown between first and second as Higley broke from third base and scored.
As disastrous as the top of the first inning was for Washington, the bottom of the fifth was worse for Evansville. The Otters committed three errors and balked in the tying run. Washington scored four runs on two hits – an infield single by Austin Wobrock and Danny Poma’s triple to start the inning – and hit just one ball out of the infield.
Prior to the doubleheader Tuesday against Evansville, Washington first baseman William Beckwith left the team and was placed on the suspended list. The Wild Things will play the remainder of the season with 23 players.