Around the fifth inning of Thursday night’s Pecos League playoff game at Clint Lightner Stadium, the southwest Kansas wind began to swirl. It slowly picked up steam as the night wore on.
It took just one lightning quick swing of a bat from Willie Ethington for the Garden City Wind to pick it up, as the right-hander drilled a go-ahead, three-run home run deep into the dark skies of left-center field en route to a 5-3 win over the Trinidad Triggers to force a deciding Game 3 at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
“I feel like there was more pressure the first game,” Ethington said of the 9-7 loss Wednesday night to the Triggers to open the best-of-three series. “I don’t know if it was because we had a couple of days off before playing, but we’re good now. I think we’re fine.”
Ethington’s blast, which put the Wind on top 4-2 at the time in the sixth, had a lot to do with the Wind not just being good now, but alive in the postseason. A loss Thursday would have ended the Wind’s improbable turnaround from last place in the North in its inaugural 2015 season to first place in 2016, and now a game away from a trip to the Pecos League championship series.
But they might have needed a little bit of a pick me up Thursday to get there. In the sixth, with the Wind down 2-1 and their namesake swirling in the outfield, Clay Ardeeser lofted a pop fly into shallow left field. The breeze danced with it, and Triggers left fielder Caleb Baker was unable to haul it in, putting runners on first and second after Beau Welborn had walked to lead off the inning.
That brought up Ethington, who saw starter Christian Schneider’s first pitch hit the dirt.
“He throw one in the dirt. I think it was a change up, so I was looking for him to come back with the fastball,” Ethington said. “He just laid it in there, and I just reacted.”
With the crack of the bat, the Wind were on top. Two batters later, Manny Colon drilled a ball to deep center to make it 5-2, and Schneider’s night was done, going 5 1/3 innings, giving up five runs on eight hits.
The Triggers got a run back on Jason Webb’s lead-off home run to right in the seventh, Wind starter Connor Kelly’s final inning. He finished with the win, giving up three runs on four hits and striking out six. In the eighth,, Wind reliever CJ Bahn prevented a run with a back-handed glove save of a Brian Frazier slap shot back up the middle that seemed destined for the outfield to drive in Caleb Baker from second. Instead, the snag was the third out of the inning, and Chris Gammon closed out the victory in the ninth.
“It was a good ball game,” Wind manager Bill Moore said. “I’m not taking anything away from those guys (Triggers). They’re tough, no question.”
But only one team will move on after Friday’s decider, so the Wind need a repeat performance.
“Or go home,” Moore said.
After several missed chances to prevent runs in Wednesday’s loss, the Wind were again a few inches away from keeping the Triggers off the board in the second inning. Eli Roundtree timed his jump perfectly to nearly haul in John Nicholson’s long fly ball to right field, but the ball tipped off his glove and landed on the other side of the fence — two-run home run and a 2-0 lead for the visiting squad in the second.
The Wind loaded the bases with three consecutive singles with one out in the third, but they could only scratch across one on Eric Esquilin’s RBI ground out to cut the deficit to 2-1.
Neither team could threaten again, until the sixth, when Ethington strolled to the plate.
Trinidad 020 000 100 — 3 6 0
Garden City 001 004 00x — 5 12 0
Schneider, Stonestreet(6), Monda(7), Brice(9) and Cuyos. Kelly, Bahn(8), Gammon(9) and Colon. W--Kelly. L--Schneider. Sv--Gammon. 2B--Trinidad: Baker (2); Garden City: Ethington (2). HR--Trinidad: Webb (1), Nicholson (1); Garden City: Ethington (1), Colon (1).