Late innings are traveling time

Andruw Azzopardi appeared to be at a loss.

The Saints’ designated hitter, who was the acting manager for the team Friday (normal Tiffin skipper Dustin Ritchie was unable to attend) said there’s just something about the Ohio Travelers.

“I don’t know what it is with the Travelers, mate,” the Australian-born Azzopardi said after the Travelers rallied for a 6-5 win. “They’ve come out (gnawing) at the bit, trying to get the Saints this season.”

Ohio appeared destined for defeat through Friday’s first seven innings, trailing 5-1. But the Travelers came up with some key hits in the final two innings, scoring five runs off Tiffin’s bullpen. Dan Johnston, who had three hits – including a game-winning two-run single in the top of the ninth – said the Travelers have made a habit of rallying late.

“We’ve been a good comeback team all year,” Johnston said. “It kind of gives us energy when we get late in the game [knowing] we have a chance for a comeback.”

Ohio scored the game’s first run in the opening inning, when Johnston singled in Ray Frias.

The lead didn’t last.

The Saints, taking advantage of some wildness from Travelers’ starter Josh Weber, pushed across five runs in the second. John Perea walked with the bases loaded to tie the game at 1, then Tyler Crandell blooped a two-run base hit into left. Ernesto Punales hit a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1, then Tiffin used a double steal with men on the corners to stretch its lead to four.

Saints starter Joe Muntz then cruised through six innings. Muntz, making his first start with the Travelers after being acquired from Adrian, set down 10 batters in a row at one point, finishing with six strike outs while allowing four hits.

“We picked him up last weekend; he knew he was starting today,” Azzopardi said. “We just needed some quality innings from a starter for once. It had been a while since a starter went out and gave us a quality start, and he did exactly that.”

Tiffin reliever Ben Lovell pitched a scoreless seventh, but the Travelers began their rally in the eighth against sidearmer Dave Hannan. Jacob Zeiter’s two-run single cut the Tiffin lead to 5-3. Hannan pitched out of further trouble by getting the Travelers’ Masa Miyadera to ground to third for an inning-ending double play.

After Nathan Winston threw a scoreless eighth for the Travelers, Ohio began threatening right away in the ninth against reliever Travis Smith. Smith walked Frias to open the inning, then gave up a single to Eric Underwood. Smith then walked Scott Underwood to load the bases, bringing up Johnston.

A wild pitch scored Frias to make it 5-4 and put runners on second and third.

Johnston’s single gave the Travelers the edge.

“D.J. had that big hit in the ninth inning, and Jacob had that big hit in the eighth inning,” Travelers’ manager Jay Zeiter said. “We had lots of guys get on base before those guys to give (them) opportunities.”

Tiffin had a good chance in the ninth against Travelers’ closer James Coleman. Tyler Crandell opened with a single. Ernesto Punales bunted down the first base line. Johnston, playing first, fielded the ball, but his throw was wild, allowing Crandell to take third. Punales was thrown out trying to take second.

The Travelers brought the infield in, and it paid off when Danny Bustamante grounded to second and Crandell was forced to hold at third.

Coleman then fanned Azzopardi to end it.

“James Coleman has done everything I’ve asked him to do,” Jay Zeiter said. “He was injured in the middle part of the season (and) was originally a starter for us … by being able to close and throw as hard as he can for that one inning, he’s really pulled us out here a couple of times these last couple weeks.”

With the victory, the Travelers guaranteed themselves the No. 2 seed in the IBL playoffs. Ohio – for the first time this season – will be the home team when they play the Saints here next Friday. The winner of that game will play Adrian for the IBL championship.

The Saints and Travelers play again today at 2 p.m. at Peaceful Valley.