The Amarillo Sod Poodles begin their longest road trip of the season this week coming off their longest homestand of the season last week, and it’s hard not to blame them if they don’t feel like leaving home.
It was the most successful homestand of the season thus far for the Sod Poodles, who won back-to-back home series over Midland and Frisco for an 8-4 record over two weeks at Hodgetown. If there was any doubt, the Soddies now look entirely comfortable at Hodgetown as the Texas League season closes in on the halfway point.
That the Sod Poodles beat the Frisco RoughRiders 9-3 on Sunday evening to clinch their second straight series victory at Hodgetown seemed almost anticlimactic in the context of what happened before that. The previous five games with Frisco before that were a combination of historical, unusual and improbable, but the home team generally came out of the better end of it.
The Sod Poodles are now 28-29 on the season and have a fighting chance for a first half Texas League South championship. They’re three games behind division leading San Antonio, whom they’ll be visiting for six game starting Tuesday before heading to Corpus Christi for six games.
Here’s a look at the highlights of that series, of which there were plenty.
Winning the arms race
With the teams playing six games, it was no surprise that the Sod Poodles and RoughRiders would begin and end the series with the same pitching matchup, and as luck would have it, between the top pitching prospects in each team’s parent organization. On Tuesday and Sunday, the Sod Poodles threw left-hander Blake Walston, the No. 1 pitching prospect of the Arizona Diamondbacks, against Frisco right-hander Jack Leiter, the No. 1 overall prospect of the Texas Rangers.
Walston, the slightly less-heralded prospect, got the better of the two matchups, winning both decisions for his first two victories in Class AA. He threw six scoreless innings to win Tuesday’s game 7-4 and threw seven solid innings Sunday to clinch the series victory.
The Sod Poodles scored all seven of their runs off Leiter, son of former major leaguer Al Leiter, in the first game, six of them via homers. Leiter only pitched the first inning of the rematch since the RoughRiders are going with a six-man rotation, and Justin Slaten relieved after that and took the loss.
Walston was well aware of the hype of the matchup between him and Leiter.
“He’s a big guy in their org and I’m a big guy in our org and I just went out there and did what I needed to do,” Walston said. “I think I’m adapting pretty well. Every outing since my first one I’ve gotten better. I went 1 1/3 (innings) in my first outing and been just climbing ever since.
“The whole thing is like a huge learning process and how to just pitch these hitters who are super talented. Double A’s really good baseball. You can either fail here or see that you’re a big leaguer. It’s a make-or-break league for sure.”
Walston is now 2-2 in Amarillo. If he keeps this up at his current pace, he’ll soon punch his ticket to Class AAA Reno.
“When he takes his shoes off tonight and gets in the shower, he may look back on this, but I think at the time he’s just really focused on himself,” Sod Poodles manager Shawn Roof said of Walston. “The biggest thing for Blake was just controlling what he could control and let the defense and offense behind him work.”
Hip hip, Jorge!
While the first Walston-Leiter matchup and the next night’s 4-0 Frisco win may have seemed offensively pedestrian, the signature Hodgetown offensive games broke out over the next three nights.
The Sod Poodles won a pair of 11-10 decisions on Thursday and Friday in quite different fashions. They held the lead Thursday after only five innings when the game was called because of rain, then on Friday had to go to the 10th inning to decide things.
With the score tied 8-8 and the “ghost” runner on second base under extra inning rules, Frisco scored two in the top of the inning to take a 10-8 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Drew Stankiewicz doubled to bring home ghost runner Lyle Lin and cut it to 10-9.
Jorge Barrosa then came up with one out representing the winning run. Barrosa lined a pitch over the short porch in right field for a two-run homer to end the game.
“I just think about hard hits, maybe tying it with one run, but that just happened,” said Barrosa, a native of Venezuela. “It’s about making contact with the barrel out there.”
In the top of the ninth, Roof was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with the game still tied. That could have served as the impetus for the comeback in the bottom of the 10th.
“That was energy for all of us,” Barrosa said. “He fought for us so we’ve got to battle for him and the team.”
Biggest inning ever goes for naught
The next night, the Soddies set a franchise record with their biggest inning in franchise history. They went full Spinal Tap, going to 11 in the bottom of the eighth, which would normally signal a huge rally and potential victory.
However, it was an impressive inning which fell short. The Sod Poodles never led the RoughRiders on Saturday night, as they trailed 13-0 when they posted their epic inning.
A total of 15 Sod Poodles came to the plate that inning, and seven straight batters reached base with two outs. While the Soddies had seven hits in the inning (including five straight before the final out) It didn’t hurt that two Frisco relievers combined to walk five batters, including back-to-back walks issued by Kevin Gowdy to force in two runs.
In a typical Hodgetown turnabout, though, Frisco got some insurance with three runs in the top of the ninth for a 16-11 lead. However, the Sod Poodles rallied again in the bottom of the inning and, again, Barrosa figured in the ending.
The Soddies had three straight one-out singles and a deep sacrifice fly by Lyle Lin drove in a run and put the tying run on deck. TiQuon Forbes hit a sharp grounder toward Frisco second baseman Jax Biggers. Barrosa, who was on first, ran into Biggers, and was called out for runner’s interference to end the game.
A Hair in their meal
In a strange turn of events, despite being one of the most prolific powerhitting teams in the minor leagues, the Sod Poodles didn’t homer in either of their final two games at Hodgetown against Frisco, despite scoring 21 runs.
Frisco’s Trey Hair, though, compensated for any missing longball fireworks last week at Hodgetown. Hair homered in each of the first five games of the series.
Sunday, however, Hair failed to go yard. Not only that, he was 0-for-4, struck out twice and hit into a double play.
For the series, Frisco hit 17 homers.