The Thunder Bay Border Cats needed Canadian right-hander Yuji Suzuki to go deep into Monday's night's contest.
The shaggy-haired Toronto native delivered, going seven strong to earn the Cats a two-game series split against the visiting Eau Claire Express, their third win in their last four games, and their sixth in eight at the friendly confines of Port Arthur Stadium.
Suzuki, who evened his record at a win and a loss, was buoyed by an offensive explosion in the first two innings that saw the Cats stake him to an eight run lead, with four in the first and four more in the second.
Third baseman Nick Studer, a fellow Ontarian, and first baseman Sal Taormina did the bulk of the damage at the plate, collecting three hits apiece and driving home three and four runs respectively.
But it was Suzuki who was the star of the show, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, the Cats having used six pitchers in Sunday’s 10-5 loss, the same score they won by a night later.
“I was just trying to throw strikes,” said Suzuki, who gave up three runs on seven hits and three walks in his 94-pitch appearance.
“And my defence … made great plays.”
Those eight runs certainly helped his confidence.
“That picked me up too. Early runs always help. In the third inning I gave up two runs, that’s not what you want to do, but it ended up all right,” Suzuki said.
Taormina delivered the key blow in the opening frame, doubling home Studer and Tyler Rolland to give the Cats an early 4-0 lead.
It was more of the same in the second, after Suzuki set the Express down in order.
This time it was Studer with the two-run shot, a single that scored two more, hastening the end of Eau Claire starter Cory Taylor’s night. Taylor only lasted two-thirds of an inning in his debut, and was chased with two outs in the third in this one, after loading the bases with two outs.
“He was having a tough time hitting the zone, so we were being selective with the pitches we were swinging at. We got a couple of guys on base early and were looking to put the ball in play off the guy. He was supplying the power so we could just barrel up off the guy,” said Studer, who leads the Cats with 16 RBI, the 12th best total in the Northwoods League.
Though the crowds at Port Arthur Stadium haven’t been that large this season – just 473 made it out to the park for this particular contest – they’re providing the adrenaline the team needs to produce wins, Studer said.
“When we start scoring, putting runs on the board, they start going pretty crazy for us, so it’s always good to have that support,” he said.
Suzuki was at his finest in the seventh. The Cats were leading 8-3, but the Express were trying to rally back, with two on and Tyler Hermann at the dish.
Hermann had five hits, including a home run, in Sunday’s series opener, and was one swing from pulling Eau Claire (13-13) to within a pair.
But Suzuki, who started the at bat with three straight balls, worked the count full and induced a double play to third to end the threat, paving the way for Wes Helsabeck to journey to the mound in relief.
Helsabeck wasn’t his sharpest, allowing a pair of runs in the eighth, but shut the door from there to preserve the win.
The Cats (9-18) travel to Duluth on Tuesday for a double-header against the Huskies, one of two North Division teams below them in the standings. Thunder Bay returns home Thursday to face Willmar.
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