In the thick of a heated Northwoods League playoff race, the Mankato Moon Dogs had a Border Cats sweep on their minds this week.
Thanks to the powerful bat of Tanner Rockwell on Friday night, they got it.
Rockwell doubled home two runs in the fourth and blasted a deep drive off the Port Arthur Stadium scoreboard in left, his fifth home run of the campaign, to score two more and lead the visitors to a convincing 10-5 win over the 3-12 Thunder Bay Border Cats.
When the final out had been recorded, Rockwell had gone 3-for-5 with six RBI, helping the Moon Dogs (10-7) remain in a second-place tie in the North Division standings, a game-and-a-half behind front-running Eau Claire.
“We knew this week was going to be really important,” Rockwell said. “We dropped two to Rochester. They came in and played really well against us. There wasn’t much we could do, they were swinging a hot bat.
“But we came back this weekend and tried to clear our heads, try to start over and surely we played two good games and swung the bats real well.”
Contributing to that success feels great, Rockwell added.
“Yeah, definitely,” the Mankato third baseman said, happy to fill a hole in the Moon Dogs lineup left by all-star Levi Scott, nursing a injury and unable to play.
“He got a day off and I just felt like I needed to pick up the pace a little bit and try to make up for him.”
It just wasn’t the Border Cats’ night.
The Moon Dogs scored single runs off starter Yuji Suzuki in each of the first three innings, then exploded for four more when Nathan Aultman took the mound to start the fourth.
Try as they might, the Cats’ bats couldn’t solve Mankato pitcher Dillon Williams, whose five-inning start earned him his first win of the 2014 season.
Williams yielded just three hits before departing, a move that backfired on Mankato manager Mike Orchard, a one-time Border Cats coach.
Reliever Joe Hawks, making his Northwoods League debut, was not at his finest, surrendering three hits and a walk, charged with Thunder Bay’s first three runs of the contest.
Replacement Matt Wilson, who has struggled all season long, hit Tyler Rolland and issued back-to-back walks to Sal Taormina and Adam Collins, each free pass scoring a Border Cats run.
Reliever Austin Wilson was brought on to limit the damage, and although he allowed a run to cross the plate on a Ty Blankmeyer fielder’s choice, he struck out Jordan Serena to end the threat. It was the lone time in five at bats Serena went down.
The four hits he collected, raising his average to .264, mean little when the decision lands in the loss column, he said.
“It was good. But it’s tough to do something like that and lose,” Serena said.
Wilson, who finished the contest, earned the save for Mankato. The loss went to Suzuki.
The Border Cats will host Rochester on Saturday night, a 6:05 p.m. start. Charles Thielmann (2-2) is Thunder Bay’s scheduled starter.
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