Three hours before the start of Friday night’s game against the Laredo Lemurs at Uni-Trade Stadium, the Wichita Wingnuts had no idea who their starting pitcher would be. Prior to leaving for the park they found out that the scheduled starter, Jon Link, was having his contract purchased by the Miami Marlins. In an emergency situation, the Nuts activated pitching coach Luke Robertson to take the hill and the 35-year old was up to the task. He earned his first win on the bump since 2003 when he was in the Oakland A’s farm system. The Wingnuts’ offense also was able to churn out seven runs in eight innings against the league’s ERA leader on their way to the 8-4 win that clinched the South Division title.
After both pitchers stranded a pair of runners in the first inning, the Wingnuts (64-26) got to work with the bats in the second against Cesar Carrillo (7-5). Victor Diaz grounded out to short to begin the inning, but the next six batters all singled to plate five runs. Chris McClendon started the scoring with a bases loaded, two-RBI single. The next batter, Ryan Khoury, pushed home the 56th run of his season with a base knock and then Jake Luce plated both McClendon and Khoury with his own two-RBI rip.
With the help of the early cushion, Robertson (1-0) settled in nicely and shut out the Laredo (53-33) offense through the first three innings. A two-run double with two outs by outfielder Byron Wiley put the Lemurs on the board and trimmed the lead to 5-2.
The teams each traded unearned runs in the fifth to keep the Wingnuts’ lead firm at three. Brent Clevlen doubled with two outs and advanced to third when Denis Phipps let the ball go under his glove in right. The center fielder would score on Diaz’s ensuing single. In the bottom half, Kyle Brandenburg reached on an error by David Espinosa and moved to second on a throwing error by Chris McMurray. He went to third on an infield single by Phipps and then crossed the plate on Travis Denker’s sacrifice fly which made the score 6-3. Robertson turned it over to the bullpen in the sixth, having allowed three runs, two earned, on six hits in five frames. He struck out two and walked one.
Laredo cut the lead to 6-4 in the sixth on an RBI base hit by Carlos Ramirez, before Clevlen provided all of the insurance necessary in the eighth and ninth innings with his bat. He launched his 19th home run of the season to center to begin the second-to-last inning and then plated McClendon in the ninth on a double over the center fielder’s head. The former Major Leaguer now has 30 RBI in his last 23 games and nine in the last four. He also tied the Wingnuts’ single-season record for doubles (32) with the ninth inning drive.
Relief pitcher Chase Johnson took the mound in the ninth and worked a seamless one, two, three inning to spark a jumping celebration on the field behind the mound. The Wingnuts have won four consecutive division crowns, but this was their first as a member of the South. They are now the only American Association franchise to have won the league’s North, Central, and South Division titles at least once.
Both Chris Peacock and Mike Zouzalik threw scoreless innings in relief by stranding runners on the corners in the seventh and eighth respectively. Abel Nieves went 4-4 at the plate to stretch his string of consecutive plate appearances with a hit to eight. The contest was the 15th of the season in which the Wingnuts mashed 15 or more hits. The team’s eight-game winning streak is the second-longest of the year.
The same teams will meet again in game three on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Wichita will turn to RHP Jason Van Skike (11-4) to battle Laredo RHP Josh Strawn (5-8). For information on season tickets, group outings, and party packages, call the Wingnuts' main office at (316) 264-NUTS, or visit the Wingnuts' official website at www.wichitawingnuts.com.