With almost every pitch that flew from his red-hot arm on Saturday night, Ethan Hollingsworth seared a hole right through his opponents' thinning playoff hopes.
The Fish starter was electric, as he led his team to a 4-1 victory over the Gary SouthShore RailCats. He's been that way his last few trips out. He finally slowed down in the eighth inning on Saturday, though he'd allowed only three hits in seven frames. His final line: Seven innings, five hits, one run. He struck out five and walked none.
"I got a little tired there at the end, but that's going to happen," Hollingsworth said.
"All in all, it went all right."
Yeah, that's a fair assessment. Hollingsworth was near flawless through most of the game. The first batter he faced, Gary shortstop Danny Pulfer, got on base thanks after third baseman Jake Blackwood's throw to first came in too low; Hollingsworth responded by helping turn a double-play on the next hitter, and got the third out of the first inning moments thereafter.
After that, Hollingsworth looked to slide into a grove. He struck out two batters in the second, two more in the third. The RailCats got their first base hit of the game in the fourth, a single by second baseman Zac Mitchell, then promptly left him stranded on the bags.
They would stay frustrated and off the scoreboard until the top of the eighth, when catcher Ryan Babineau snagged a single off of Hollingsworth to get aboard.
A minute later, after Brendan Lafferty had taken over pitching duties for the Fish, towering Gary centre-fielder Drew Muren knocked out an RBI single that scored Babineau, the lone Gary score of the game. Give 'em credit, though: the Fish starter said he didn't sense any desperation.
"They play really sound baseball," Hollingsworth said. "They're always hard to beat. I don't know if I saw anything different, because they play really hard every day."
Meanwhile, the Goldeyes batters were finding enough offence to climb on top. In the second inning, outfielder Josh Mazzola smashed the highlight shot, a two-run homer that hurtled over the left-field fence. It was his 15th home run of the season, and it came off the first pitch he saw from Gary starter Stephen Hiscock, a fastball flying in at a tempting height.
"He left it over the plate a little bit," Mazzola said. "I got a little bit more of it than he would have liked... you can't really miss those."
The Fish rounded out their scoring in the fifth, when a sacrifice fly from shortstop Tyler Kuhn scored second baseman Brock Bond, and a single from outfielder Reggie Abercrombie scored Blackwood. Kuhn ended the night two-for-three with an RBI.
Now, the next time Hollingsworth pitches will be in the playoffs.
"I'm extremely excited," he said.
"It's been a few years since I've been able to do that. Hopefully I can contribute, and we can go ahead and win this thing."
For the Goldeyes, this 62nd victory of the season was a point of pride, as their franchise record for wins -- set on Thursday night -- continues to climb. But it was also a payback scratch for the 3-0 shutout the Cats had dealt them at home in the series opener on Friday night. Better than that, it's their chance to play spoiler to an old rival, as Saturday night's loss leaves the RailCats' post-season dreams hanging by a frayed and tattered thread.
For them, there is only one narrow path to the Central Division championship ahead: The RailCats (52-46) must win the last two games of this series to close the season -- while hoping the Lincoln Saltdogs (53-45), who hold the tiebreaker, lose two in a row to Sioux City.
The Central champion will face the Goldeyes in the first playoff round, with Game 1 of the series set for Wednesday at Shaw Park.
"We're going to treat this as a playoff series," Mazzola said after Saturday's game. "Instead of playing two, we're going to play three. If we knock them out, we go to the next round, and they don't get to go. We're not going to take for granted the last couple of games."
The Goldeyes and the RailCats face each other for the third game of the series today, with the first pitch set for 1:30 p.m. They'll finish the homestand, and the season, at 7 p.m. on Monday at Shaw Park.
Manager Rick Forney is set to juggle the pitching rotation a bit, to get his top starters ready for the post-season; expect to see recent addition Ryan Bollinger on the mound today.