By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson
The Whitecaps scratched out seven hits against four opposing pitchers in their 5-3 loss to the South Bend Cubs in front of 3,918 at their home opener at Fifth Third Ballpark.
Two of those hits came during a ninth-inning rally that made the outcome interesting, but fell short when Rashad Brown’s line drive was caught with a game-ending dive by South Bend centerfielder Donnie Dewees, leaving the tying runs on base.
The game provided a measure of revenge for the Cubs, who dropped their first two games to the Whitecaps on Thursday and Friday in South Bend.
But it was a disappointing way for Whitecaps, defending champions of the Midwest League, to welcome back the hardy fans who braved the cold temperatures.
The high temperature was 36 degrees, which made it the second-coldest home opener in Whitecaps history.
“In our first two games the elements were horrible, and yesterday South Bend made six errors and we were able to come out on the better end of it,” said Whitecaps Manager Andrew Graham. “It happens in adverse conditions. Overall we’re hitting well so far and we had an opportunity to win it in the ninth.
“Every day, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, you have to come to the ballpark and play. We have to move forward and tomorrow is a new day. Every pitch is a new pitch.”
The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the third when Dewees tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Andrew Ely.
The Whitecaps tied the score in the bottom of the fourth when Brett Pirtle singled, took second on a single by Shane Zeile, advanced to third in a passed ball and scored on a wild pitch.
The inning could have been much bigger for West Michigan, which had runners on second and third with no outs, before a pair of strikeouts by Will Allen and Josh Lester took the steam out of the threat.
“Anytime you have runners on third and second, you gotta execute, we had more RBI guys coming up,” Graham said. “They gotta execute and shorten up to put the ball in play. Anytime the infield is in like that, you have to take the RBI. We got lucky to get one out of it on the wild pitch.”
The Cubs scored three times in the top of the sixth on RBI hits by Daniel Spingola, Tyler Alamo and P.J. Higgins.
South Bend added a run in the seventh when Eddy Julio Martinez singled and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Dewees, making the score 5-1.
The Whitecaps made the game interesting in the bottom of the ninth, scoring two runs and leaving the tying runs stranded at third and first.
Pirdle led off the inning with a walk, then Zeile hit a grounder to shortstop that seemed like the start of an easy double play. But the South Bend second baseman dropped the ball on the toss from the shortstop, leaving both runners safe.
Allen followed with an RBI single to make the score 5-2, Lester struck out, then Jose Azacar hit an RBI single to make it 5-3.
Brown came up with runners on third and first and two outs, and laced a shot to left-center that looked like it would get over Dewees’ head. But Dewees lunged and hauled in the catch at the last minute, ending the game.
“Off the bat, I thought it was going to drop,” Graham said. “The centerfielder came up big time, he made a great catch there. If he doesn’t catch that it’s a tied game with a runner on third base and two outs.”
Allen finished with two hits and an RBI for West Michigan. Brown also had two hits and
Azacar had one hit and one RBI.
Relief pitcher Toller Boardman took the loss, giving up three runs in 1 1/3 innings. Starting pitcher Matt Hall pitched four innings, giving up five hits with two strikeouts and one walk.
Dewees, Higgins and Martinez all had two hits for South Bend. Starting pitcher Ryan Kellogg got the win, tossing five innings and scattering five hits.