The Dayton Dragons have won with a lot of late-inning magic at home this season. Friday night’s game seemed destined for more.
But the big hit — the one that would have made the Dragons a winner — and the little dash of luck that could have helped went poof.
Not once, but twice.
The Dragons had rallied from a five-run deficit in the middle innings to trail Lake County by a run. Then they loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh. Hendrik Clementina, who had already knocked in three runs, worked a full count before fouling off four pitches. He swung and missed at the 10th pitch for strike three. Then hot-hitting Andy Sugilio lined the first pitch to left for the second out. Jose Garcia tagged and might have scored, but Jeter Downs went half way between second and third and was thrown out trying to get back to second to end the inning.
“It definitely didn’t deflate the dugout,” Dragons starting pitcher Packy Naughton said. “We knew we still had a great chance to win. We had another six outs to get a run.”
In the ninth, Downs walked and stole second. Jonathan India hit a ball to deep center that looked like it would be a double. But center fielder Gabriel Mejia ran it down and Downs tagged and went to third. Clementina had another chance. He struck out on a slider in the dirt that got away from the catcher, but the throw to first beat him by a step or Downs would have scored the tying run.
Instead the game was over and the Captains had a 5-4 victory.
“Overall, the guys fight back,” Dragons manager Luis Bolivar said. “And that’s all we can ask is to never give up there. We expect to score there, but what can you do.”
The comeback attempt was made necessary by a five-run first inning against Naughton (5-10). The Captains had three doubles, a triple and a single. Two of the extra-base hits were over outfielders’ heads that had a chance to be caught.
“The game just sped up on me,” Naughton said. “It’s just one of those innings, but you can’t look at that and say, ‘You know what, I messed up my whole outing.’ You’ve got to go out and salvage what you can.”
Naughton did that, showing why he leads the Dragons with 137 innings pitched. He allowed three more hits and a walk until he left with two out in the seventh after throwing his 96th pitch.
“It tells you a lot,” Bolivar said of Naughton’s toughness. “He’s a guy who’s not going to give up. He’s going to compete. It’s nice to see you can count on a guy like that.”
At the Class A level such as the Midwest League, it’s unusual for starters to go past six innings. Naughton has done it seven times in 25 starts and gone six innings another four times. He has failed to get through five innings only five times.
“It’s me doing my job as a starting pitcher,” he said. “Especially as you get to those higher levels you’re expected to go six, seven, eight, nine innings. If you come out even after five, it’s not really a great outing.”
The Dragons are 22-32 in the second half and battling to stay in the playoff chase. They entered Friday’s game 3.5 games out of the last available playoff spot. Ten of their final 16 games are at home where they have 34-27 record.
“We’re three and a half, four games out — that’s nothing,” Naughton said. “That can be made up in a week. If the chips fall in our hands right and we play baseball like we know we can, I have no doubt we’ll be in the playoffs.”