With so much on the line and the Goldeyes down by one, Josh Mazzola swung his bat, and the crack it made sounded like a redemption song.
The Fish shortstop's eighth-inning RBI double didn't just tie Sunday afternoon's game against the visiting Kansas City T-Bones, it opened the way for the Fish to rally for a last-minute win -- and, with that, keep pace in the American Association's wild-card playoff race.
For the first seven frames of Sunday's game at Shaw Park, Mazzola stood mostly frustrated by a slew of Kansas City T-Bones pitchers, as did the rest of the Fish hitters. Their own starter, Matt Jackson, pitched brilliantly, good enough to win, but the offence just couldn't drive one in.
Indeed, the score was stuck at zeros until the top of the seventh, when right-fielder Fehlandt Lentini made a difficult throw to Yurendell de Caster at third base. De Caster bobbled it, and that error allowed a T-Bones runner to dash home and put his team on the board.
Mazzola, meanwhile, was coming off a rough night the evening before, when his seventh-inning error paved the way for the T-Bones to win in extra innings. But in the eighth inning of Sunday's tilt, Mazzola made no mistake: after T-Bones reliever Sean Toler threw a trio of balls at him, and then a strike, the shortstop swung his bat and fired the ball through a fielding gap.
That double would score Ray Sadler, who had reached on a walk, and tie the game up. The ensuing Goldeyes hitters sealed the deal: an RBI single by first baseman Casey Haerther scored Mazzola, a sacrifice bunt by Lentini moved Haerther to second, and then an RBI single by Luis Alen gave the Fish their final, winning 3-1 score.
Maybe it's not surprising that the hero would be Mazzola, a firebrand competitor who wears victories and defeats so much on his sleeve. "It's good for him," manager Rick Forney said after the game. "For him to come up big with the at-bat that he comes up, you can go from being the guy who didn't do anything to help you win the night before, to being the guy who wins it for you the next night. So we're happy for him."
For him, and for starter Jackson, who hammered the T-Bones enough to give the stifled Fish offence that chance. Jackson went deep into the game, hurling 110 pitches, until he was relieved to applause in the eighth; he struck out 11 batters along the way, didn't walk a single one, and only gave up five hits and no earned runs.
So, it's an especially good thing the Fish won. "You'd hate to waste a performance like that," Forney said. "He was fantastic today. You don't want to waste those this time of year."
Because so much is hanging on everyone, now, with 14 games left and the Fish still in the battle for the final playoff spot. Although they dropped two of their last three games, they kept pace with the wild-card-leading Gary-SouthShore RailCats, who also won. So now they find themselves in a tight race with Gary and the Lincoln Saltdogs, who edged just ahead of the Fish this weekend with a 47-40 record; the Fish sit at 46-40.
Now, the Goldeyes will hit the road, bound for a tough four-game series against the St. Paul Saints and then on to the Sioux Falls Canaries before they come home to close out their season. To have a shot at clinching the wild-card spot, Forney estimates the Fish will have to take about 10 of the last 14 games. Before this weekend, the Fish were on that pace -- now, they have to get it, and keep it going.
"Seven-and-seven won't get us in, unless Gary's bus rolls off the road somewhere," Forney said bluntly. "Today says a lot about our team. They're a spunky group in there, and they play hard together."