Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fish dinger derby in Sioux Falls puts them in command of North Division

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It was a blip of a trip for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, a road rush really, a long homestand punctuated by eight hours on the bus to go face the Sioux Falls Canaries.

Still, the three-day, three-game blitz was useful. They picked up a new starting pitcher, kept their strong play rolling, and wrapped up by dealing the Canaries a 14-0 thumping on Sunday evening. That tilt clinched the 2-1 series win, and the 53-33 record keeps the Fish high atop the American Association's North Division. It's a nice place to be, with just 14 games left to play.

"One thing I've always really liked about this team, there's never a panic mode," infielder Jake Blackwood said as he settled into the bus after Sunday's game. "That's in a positive way, or a bad way. We just know if we come to the field, and prepare ourselves, and execute, we know we're good enough to do that. Right now, we're not treating this situation any different than we were treating it when we were two games up."

Blackwood was sensational in Sunday's game, marshalling what would become a home run parade: The Goldeyes hit the scoreboard on his first-inning solo bomb. Outfielder Josh Mazzola added a two-run shot in the second, Blackwood smacked another one out of the park in the fifth, and Mazzola slammed a second home run in the seventh and a third in the top of the ninth. Right after that one, backup catcher Jordan Guida tagged a solo homer of his own, off Canaries reliever Josh Giles.

"It felt good to have a game like that," Blackwood said. "We swung the bat, obviously, really well today. It was just one of those days where we didn't miss any pitches to hit. Sometimes you foul off a good pitch to hit... we weren't doing that at all today. When we got the pitch to hit, and drive, we did."

Indeed, every Fish batter collected at least one hit on Sunday. Mazzola was electric, going 4-for-5 with six RBI. And though starting pitcher Nick Hernandez didn't have to be great to win the game, he was superb anyway. Hernandez hurled seven shutout innings, and the Canaries could only snag two hits off his arm. Six of them struck out trying, before Kaohi Downing and Taylor Bratton came out to finish the job. Downing struck out two, and neither gave up a hit.

For Blackwood, going 3-for-6 on Sunday night lifted his batting average over .300 for the first time this season, now up to .305. He's been blazing hot in the second hole of late, batting .488 in his last 10 games, with five home runs, a few doubles and eight RBI. He's just feeling good, he mused, as the memory of a mid-season injury slips further into the rear view.

"I think with my ankle obviously being pretty much 100 per cent now, I'm confident when I'm in the box," he said. "I'm not worried that if I drive real hard, my ankle is going to give out. It's gone to the mindset of, be aggressive with everything, touch it up front, swing at it, try to elevate it and drive it with authority."

The Fish learned other things on this road trip too, not just that Blackwood was red-hot and Mazzola was ready to murder some balls. They learned Ryan Bollinger, just 23 years old, could be a real gamer. The Goldeyes snagged the new southpaw in a trade with the Trois-Rivieres Aigles on Friday, looking for someone to plug the gap in a rotation that was down to just four men.

In his debut one day later, Bollinger hammered the Canaries, striking out eight and allowing only two late runs in a 4-3 win. And though it can be tough sliding into a team so late in the season, Blackwood said the Fish have been quick to welcome the new hurler. Hey, every hand is going to be important down the stretch.

"This team is one of the more unique teams I've ever been on," Blackwood said. "I've never been on a team where all the players get along with each other. Everybody likes everybody. There's no cliques, no separation between hitters and pitchers, no separation from two-, three- and four-hitters to seven, eight and nine. It's a very rare thing in professional sport to have that, and every guy we've got who's been a new player, we've embraced."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2014 C1

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Updated on Monday, August 18, 2014 at 7:07 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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