Before the Aeros afternoon game with visiting Harrisburg Wednesday, somebody scribbled these words on an Indians dry erase board hanging on the locker room door: Today’s weather - hot and humid with a chance of a hit parade.
It appeared somebody jokingly erased the word rain and added the hit parade part. But as it turned out, the sentiment wasn’t that far off the mark as the Aeros notched their sixth consecutive victory to wrap up a successful seven-game home stand.
Still, there’s no truth to the rumor that the culprit was Thomas Neal, the left fielder who punctuated his 3-for-4 performance with the game-winning hit in the Aeros 6-5 come-from-behind victory.
Of course Neal’s big hit came after three crucial walks, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. So, let’s first back track a bit to set the scene.
Trailing by a run, 5-4, entering the ninth inning with Senators right-handed closer Hector Nelo looking to notch his 14th save in 15 opportunities, Aeros first baseman Adam Abraham sparked the rally by leading off with an infield base hit.
Catcher Roberto Perez did his job to move Abraham along with a sacrifice bunt and Davis Stoneburner came on to pinch run for Abraham. But right fielder Jordan Henry grounded out for the second out, leaving the Aeros down to their final out.
With the top of the lineup up, center fielder Tyler Holt patiently worked a walk and second baseman Matt Lawson followed with a walk of his own to load the bases. That brought designated hitter Nick Weglarz to the plate, practically licking his lips.
But instead of using the mammoth swing that has produced a team-leading 12 home runs, Weglarz took note of Nelo’s inability to find the strike zone and worked a walk that produced the tying run.
“With Wegs in that at-bat I probably felt as confident as I would having any other hitter up there,” Aeros manager Chris Tremie said. “For this reason - the pitcher was a little bit wild and was having a hard time with his command. Nick is very good in at-bats in identifying that in a pitcher and then laying off marginal pitches. So I was very comfortable with him up there at that moment.”
With Nelo struggling, Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy was anything but comfortable. So he trotted to the mound, told the kid to hit the showers and called on right-hander Rafael Martin to finish off the inning. But Martin never got past Neal, who laced a bloop single to the opposite field for the game winner.
“My main goal was to just stay up the middle,” Neal said. “This whole home stand I’d been pulling off the ball a little bit and so today my whole focus was just to stay in the middle of the field to try to hit line drives and not pop so many balls up. That approach helped me stay on some balls, lay off some pitches and see him a little bit longer until I finally got a pitch I could hit.”
Most impressive was the fact that the 24-year-old All-Star was able to stay within himself down to the final pitch – faced with a full count and the Aeros five-game winning streak on the line.
“Those are the times when you tend to get a little anxious, but I took a deep breath and told myself, ‘stick with your approach, it’s been working all day so don’t go away from it.’ ”
Harrisburg jumped out to an early lead against Aeros starting pitcher Steven Wright courtesy of designated hitter Chris Rahl's three-run home run against the knuckleballer in the first inning.
Then in the top of the fourth, a fielding error on Aeros shortstop Juan Diaz with two outs kept the inning alive long enough for second baseman Jose Lozada to poke a single through the infield and score right fielder J.R. Higley, pushing the Senators lead to four unanswered runs.
But in the bottom of the inning, an error and two doubles opened the door for the Aeros, with third baseman Ryan Rohlinger's two-run double pulling the Aeros within a run, 4-3.
But Harrisburg added an insurance run in the sixth inning on third baseman Tim Pahuta’s mammoth lead off home run against reliever Toru Murata, who had just taken over for Wright. Despite giving up four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks over five innings, Wright earned a no decision.
The Aeros once again inched with a run when Neal led off the sixth inning with a single up the middle and scored on a double play to narrow the gap to 5-4 and set up the ninth-inning heroics.
“(Neal’s) been very consistent in a lot of big situations for about two and a half months now,” Tremie said. “At times there’s been some games where he didn’t have any hits but come up in the last at-bat like today and get that one big knock to help us win.”