The Thunder Bay Border Cats are relishing the opportunity to play Northwoods League first-half spoilers.
It’s all about setting the stage for a second-half run, said Cats centre-fielder Cory Kay, who singled a drove in a run in the bottom of the sixth as his team took the lead for good over the Willmar Stingers, en route to a 6-5 win in front of 642 Port Arthur Stadium fans.
The Cats, who improved to 13-19, have long been out of the running for the North Division’s first-half title, but are keen to send a message to the rest of the league that they plan to be a factor in the race for the second and final playoff berth when the slates are wiped clean next week.
“Absolutely,” Kay said. “We started off slow and now we’re starting to get things rolling and everyone is starting to believe. We just beat the best team in the league. For the first half, we know we’re not going to make it, but we’d like to keep things going.
“For the second half, everything starts new and starts fresh.”
The Cats, who have won seven of nine, handed the first-place Stingers just their seventh loss in 27 outings, the lowest total in the Northwoods League.
Kay, who has struggled at the plate, said it’s just taken the team awhile to adjust at the plate.
It certainly hasn’t been an issue of late.
The Border Cats have posted at least six runs in each of their past six outings and have raised the team batting average to .265, third highest in the league, a 24-point jump in less than a week.
“I think a lot of guys came in and this is the first time they’ve faced competition like this,” said Kay, a third-year veteran in Thunder Bay.
“This is a good league and now they’re starting to get more comfortable in the box, on the mound and in the field playing defence. A lot of it has to do with confidence.”
First-year manager Johnny Hernandez said it’s been a process.
“It’s taken us a while to click. We’re still not there 100 per cent, but I think we’re really, really close,” he said.
“And I think the league is starting to take notice of that.”
Friday’s win was as much about perseverance as anything – not to mention a solid outing by starter Ryan Powers (1-1), a recent 22nd-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Powers, who allowed just two runs on six hits over six innings, settled down after Hutton Moyer tied the game 2-2 in the fourth on a sacrifice fly, keeping the Cats off the board for two full innings, allowing the Cats’ bats to find their groove in a two-run sixth.
From there on in, the Cats answered every time the Stingers struck.
Willmar closed the gap to one in the seventh on a Sean Beeley sac fly, but a Tyler Rolland double pushed the lead back to two in the bottom half of the inning.
The Stingers, who now cling to a half-game lead over Waterloo, loaded the bases with one out off Cats reliever Devin McLemore in the eighth, but could only plate a single run on a wild pitch, the struggling right-hander catching Frankie Rios looking with the bases loaded for the third out.
The Cats got that one back when defensive replacement Max Ayoub failed to corral a routine grounder to first, allowing Sal Taormina to trot home with Thunder Bay’s sixth run, charged to reliever Garrett Anderson, who took over from brother Brady to start the eighth.
Closer Lucas Scocchia came on in the ninth, seeking his first save of the season, but didn’t do himself any favours, a throwing error putting runners on first and second with no outs. But the Stingers got a little aggressive on the basepaths and it cost them when Beesley was caught stealing, breaking one of baseball’s cardinal rules, making the first out of the inning at third.
Willmar (20-7) did managed to push one run across, but with a runner on third Scocchia induced a pair of ground ball outs to end the threat.
The Cats hit the road for a pair Saturday and Sunday in Mankato, returning home Monday to wrap up first-half play with a one-off against Duluth.
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