THUNDER BAY – Big numbers haven’t been kind to the Thunder Bay Border Cats lately.
The Border Cats surrendered double digits in runs for the second straight night to the Duluth Huskies, falling 11-8 on Friday night as their Lake Superior neighbours to the south swept the mini-two game Northwoods League regular season series at Port Arthur Stadium.
The loss, Thunder Bay’s third straight and ninth in their first 10 games of the second half of the season, has the club looking for answers with a starting pitching rotation that had been solid to close out the first half but got knocked around during this home stand.
“The last three starts, they’ve put up those big numbers and you just can’t do that. We’re not a very offensive team. That shouldn’t happen. It’s very rare that we put up eight runs,” manager Eric Vasquez said.
“We have to make sure those five or six innings for our starters, we need to change something. We need to make an adjustment there for sure.”
Both sides lit up the scoreboard with fifth-frame fireworks, combining to post 10 runs in the inning, though the Huskies accounted for six of those.
Duluth (6-4) roughed up Border Cats starter Alex Dafoe, who had been on course for a respectable outing with three runs given up through the first four innings, with a two-run double off the bat of Alex Tappen highlighting the surge.
With four runs already across, the home side had a chance to stop the bleeding but third baseman Triston Lundgren, making his Border Cats debut, short-hopped a throw across the diamond that eluded first baseman Jake Engel for the team’s second error of the inning and allowed two more Duluth runners to score.
Getting out of those jams with minimal damage isn’t just on the guy on the mound, Vasquez said.
“The defence needs to step up and almost take control of that,” Vasquez said. “As much as the pitcher is trying to throw strikes and stuff like that, it’s still a team game and we can’t all just do it with our arm. There’s just a lot of little things that are kicking our butts right now.”
The outcome on the scoreboard soured a memorable farewell for Engel, who mashed two home runs and drove in three runs in a four-hit effort in his final home contest before departing next week to prepare for his senior collegiate campaign.
One night after finding themselves quickly in a massive hole, Engel’s first inning solo shot gave the Border Cats an opening stanza advantage.
Engel went yard again in his next at-bat in the fourth, taking Huskies starter Dane Morrow out over the left field fence for his team-leading sixth long ball of the season.
“I definitely wanted to be remembered by the fans, by the team on a positive note,” said the 21-year-old slugger, admitting he took two huge cuts in his third plate appearance in the sixth to try for a third dinger.
Vasquez found humour in Engel’s anxiety about his participation in next week’s league Home Run Derby, which is part of All-Star Game festivities in Waterloo, especially after flashing his power against live pitching.
“We loosened him up a little in early work and kind of just said what we wanted him to do and he pulled the ball twice,” Vasquez said. “You haven’t seen that very often.”
The Huskies added a pair of insurance runs in the top half of the ninth but Thunder Bay fought to the final out, responding with two of their own courtesy of an Andrew Shebloski double.
That refusal to give in, despite a daunting and ultimately insurmountable deficit, is encouraging to Vasquez despite the recent struggles.
“They keep on fighting,” Vasquez said. “They keep on clawing.”
Claw marks: The announced attendance was 810…Engel’s six homers are tied for sixth-most in the Northwoods League…Tappen drove in four runs to pace Duluth's bats...The Huskies are one game back of the Great Plains East second-half standings, trailing the La Crosse Loggers and Eau Claire Express, who each sport 7-3 records...The Cats will hit the road for a two-game road series against the Express before the reprieve of the three-day All-Star break…The Cats will return to Port Arthur Stadium on July 20 for four in a row against Eau Claire.