LAKE ELSINORE — The Storm dropped Sunday evening’s series finale and had to settle for a split with Inland Empire in the first full series of the second half.
The 66ers jumped ahead in the first when, with two outs, they got to starter Miguel Mendez for two singles and two walks to plate a pair of runs. Working with a fastball that reached 97 multiple times on the night and an inconsistent slider, Mendez allowed traffic over each of the next to frames but stanched the bleeding.
His offense closed the gap in the second inning when Griffin Doersching turned on a center-cut fastball for a solo shot. An inning later, Kai Murphy sliced a single to the left and then swiped second. Fresh off the IL, Tyler Robertson legged out a bunt single with a sub-4.0 second time to first base before Sammy Zavala lofted a sacrifice fly to left-center. Ethan Salas and Devin Ortiz followed with back-to-back doubles to help the home club pull ahead.
Mendez, who struggled to find a release point all night, gave up a solo shot in the fourth before working around a two-out walk that was his fifth and final free pass. The righty, who turned 21 on Friday, has an unsightly 18:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his 24.1 innings of work this year, his first extended taste of full-season ball.
Dwayne Matos followed Mendez and gave up a monster two-run homer over the big wall in right that wound up being the difference in the game.
The Storm had an opportunity in the eighth inning when Salas and Ortiz had back-to-back singles to put runners on the corners with one out. With two strikes, Doersching lofted a soft pop-up just in foul territory near third base. As Salas returned to the base, he and third baseman Christian Sepulveda briefly got tied up, but Sepulveda easily moved through the contact and caught the foul ball.
Home plate umpire Evan Anderson, however, ruled Salas out for interference, which by rule made it a dead ball, sending Doersching back to the plate. He drew a walk, but Saturday night’s hero, Victor Duarte, couldn’t summon the magic again and flew out to end the inning.
“[Salas] was doing what he’s supposed to; it’s just bad luck,” said manager Pete Zamora. “They probably got the call right, but it’s unfortunate.”
Storm Notes: Robertson’s return boosts a Storm lineup that saw some firepower move to Fort Wayne last week. The 23-year-old toolsy outfielder had a .300/.414/.425 line when he hit the IL with a hamstring injury in early May. The bunt single was his only hit of the day, but he followed it with his 13th stolen base in 14 attempts over 23 Cal League games. “He puts pressure on people before he even gets on base,” said Zavala. “It’s not if he’s going to go, but when he’s going to go.”
Kobe Robinson, Cole Paplham, and David Morgan each worked a clean inning of relief as the Storm showcased the three arms who will likely be their go-to options in high-leverage situations in the second half. Paplham, in his second outing since missing six weeks with a shoulder injury, showed his wipeout slider while running his fastball up to 97 in a quick six-pitch inning. The 23-year-old out of the University of New Orleans was torched for four runs in one-third of an inning in a meltdown outing in early May but has otherwise given up two runs over 11 frames on the year. … Morgan, like Paplham, a part of San Diego’s unusually large undrafted free agent class last summer, has earned his way into bigger settings with a strong performance this year. The Orange County native has worked 30 innings across 15 appearances, holding opponents to a .219 average. His mid-90s fastball shows impressive life.
The two-hit night from Salas, in the lineup at the DH spot, pushed his OPS back up to .733. He’s shown an impressive ability to make adjustments over the last several weeks. He finished the series 6-for-16 with four extra-base hits.