FORT WAYNE — As they have often this year, the TinCaps rallied late, but came up short again on Saturday, dropping a 4-3 contest to Dayton in front of a sellout crowd. The club, which was struggling even before the trade deadline emptied out the roster, has dropped 12 of their last 16 and now sits just a half game ahead of Quad Cities for the worst record in the Midwest League.
Despite the team-wide struggles, there were a handful of strong individual performances Saturday night.
Starter Jose Espada cruised through the first three, striking out the side in the first and only allowing a pair of walks the first time through the lineup. The 25-year-old righty, who signed with the Padres on July 1 to return to affiliated baseball, showed off an especially lively mid-80s slider, getting 19 swinging strikes over five innings of work.
The Puerto Rico native gave up a run in the fourth when he walked Noelvi Marte for the second time. After Marte swiped second, Espada fooled Jose Torres with the slider, but the infielder fought it off and flared the ball to right for an RBI single.
Espada cruised again in the fifth, earning his first opportunity to pitch in the sixth for Fort Wayne, but gave up a leadoff homer and a four-pitch walk before giving way.
“My consideration is where this guy came from,” said manager Brian Esposito. “This guy came out of independent and has been pitching his butt off for us. You could see him start to tire out in the fifth inning, toward the back end… I felt like he has earned the right to go back out and establish himself and be rewarded with that sixth up right there.
“He’s been really good for us, he’s posted up and given us a bunch of innings. He earned the right to go back out in the sixth inning.”
With Espada done, Esposito turned to Nick Thwaits. The righty gave up a double to the first batter he faced, allowing the next fly ball to plate the third run charged to Espada. After that, the Fort Defiance, Ohio, reliever shut down the Dragons offense over three innings of work. The 23-year-old, who the Padres drafted out of high school in 2018, struck out three and, as he has more frequently of late, didn’t issue a walk.
“I was able to really fill up the zone tonight and attack those hitters and make them hit my pitch tonight,” said Thwaits.
Thwaits worked well off his cutter, a pitch he’d gone away from in recent years. As he’s reintegrated it, he’s pitched to a 1.83 ERA since the start of July.
“Working with Rob Marcello and JJ, they thought it would benefit me to add it back in. We’ve worked on it all year and it’s showing up right now. It’s been a really good pitch for me.”
The multi-inning performance gave his offense a chance to get back into the game.
“When someone’s able to provide length, that’s huge out of the bullpen,” said Esposito.
Thwaits, who worked as a starter until a rough 2021 campaign in Lake Elsinore, has adapted well to the multi-inning relief role.
With Thwaits keeping the TinCaps in the game, the offense began to close the gap in the seventh. Joshua Mears, who’d fouled off multiple pitches in his first two trips to the plate, muscled a first-pitch breaking ball down the first base line and easily turned it into a double by getting out of the box aggressively.
“I saw a lot of adjustability,” from him, said Esposito. “It’s not a one-groove swing. It’s a matter of being able to adjust, especially with two strikes or whatever, being able to push a ball the other way, to flip out the barrel and be rewarded. It’s great to see him put a ball in play to the right side.”
Albert Fabian followed with a line drive single to left that allowed Mears to come around easily. Fabian, who’d been a major contributor to Lake Elsinore before his promotion, had been in a 3-for-40 slump before coming through.
In the eighth, Carlos Luis came through with his second extra-base hit of the night when he, too, smacked a ball the other way. The ball, which wound up rolling through the Dragons bullpen, went for an RBI triple. Luis then scored on Agustin Ruiz‘s second double of the night, but the TinCaps couldn’t get one more hit to pull ahead.
In the ninth, Ramon Perez got a leadoff strikeout, but then walked three straight batters to give way. The lefty, who’d been working more effectively in high leverage situations recently, seemed to fight his mechanics and wasn’t able to make adjustments on the mound. He was charged with the loss when Ethan Routzahn hit the first batter he faced to push across the winning run.
NOTES: Luis and Ruiz were the only two TinCaps with two hits on the night. Luis has now reached in each of his 13 games since getting promoted. The 22-year-old only had one extra-base hit through his first 10 games, but is settling in and taking more aggressive swings at the plate now. … In addition to his two doubles, Ruiz also made a nice sliding catch on a shallow fly for the first out in the second. For a defense that’s had many balls find the grass, it was an important early play to back Espada. … Ethan Hawkins and Bodi Rascon will again piggyback on Sunday. Each will hope that their second outing in High-A goes better than the first.