Eight’s great, but the Thunder Bay Border Cats say they’re just getting warmed up.
Rallying behind the return of starter Zak Miller and riding a solo shot off the bat of hot-hitting Jerrick Suiter, the Cats hung on Tuesday night to nip the Mankato Moondogs 6-5. The win, the red-hot Cats eighth in a row, helped them keep pace in a super tight North Division race that sees first and last place separated by just six games, with less than two weeks to go in the regular season.
Willmar leads the standings with a 15-9 record, a game-and-a-half up on Duluth, who also won Tuesday, and two ahead of third-place Thunder Bay.
“I think it’s an environment everybody wants to walk into,” Miller said. “We’re having success and we’re having great defence and it’s just a great environment to be in.”
Miller started slowly, giving up a two-run bomb to J.M. Twichell in the first inning, but got stronger as the game went on to pick up his first win in more than a year, after seeing his sophomore campaign last summer end with a line drive off his jaw.
The White Rock, B.C. native said the homer didn't really bother him.
“The way I took it is if you give up a homerun, you’ve got to go back to work," Miller said.
“There are bumps in the road, but if you can come out like I did and throw five innings, you give your team a chance to win.”
On a strict, self-imposed pitch count, coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him during the college season, Miller shook off the runs and kept the Dogs at bay for a couple of innings, giving his teammates time to do what lately they do best with the bats in their hands.
“He got better as the game went on,” manager Andy Judkins said. “It seemed like he kept the ball down more. He gave up his hits early and then started to limit them. But you know every time he goes out there and takes the ball he’s going to compete. What he did was keep us in the game and fortunately for us we scored in the one inning and were able to get him the W.”
Of course, when your opponent makes four errors in the contest, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to support your pitcher.
Omar Cotto, who scored the Cats opening run in the first, scampered home from third when catcher Audie Afenir’s attempt to strike down Brett Kay stealing second went awry. Danny Bethea then lined a shot to shortstop that Chris Munoz thought he’d snagged, then rushed a wild throw to first when he didn’t get the call, Kay scoring on the play.
The first-half champion Moondogs (10-14), losers of six straight, tied it in the fourth, but with Miller obviously done for the night after five, the Cats gave him a parting gift when Andrew Ayers singled up the middle off reliever Garrett Anderson to score Adam Landecker with the go-ahead run, a lead they’d never relinquish. Anderson took over from closer-turned starter Patrick Goelz with two outs in he fifth.
Thunder Bay added a pair in the sixth, Brett Kay plating Tyler Duplantis with a sacrifice fly and Suiter slamming the ball off the Port Arthur Stadium scoreboard over the left-field wall.
Matt Cooper came on in relief of Miller in the sixth, and went three strong innings, giving up a run in the eighth, before giving way to closer Jordan McCoy.
The all-star reliever was hit hard after retiring the first batter he faced, but limited the damage to a single run to collect his 10th save of the summer.
The Cats will look for the five-game sweep of Mankato at home on Wednesday night.
Claw marks: Attendance was 909 … Former Border Cats all-star pitcher Wes Parsons has signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves .
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