West Michigan (16-27) overcame a pair of deficits and leaned heavily on an overtaxed bullpen that was called to action early after an injury-shortened outing by starter Jade Todd. Fort Wayne (21-22) won for the sixth time in their last seven games thanks to a walk-off single by Jeudy Valdez that came with a full count, the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
The game was tied 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth when Whitecaps reliever Jose Ortega retired the first two batters of the inning, but Rymer Liriano singled to extend the inning and cap an afternoon in which he went 3-for-3 and reached base five times. After a base hit, a stolen base and an intentional walk loaded the bases, Valdez stepped in with a chance to be the hero. After working the count full and fouling off a series of pitches, Valdez lined the eighth pitch of the sequence up the middle for the 7-6 victory.
That made a winner out of Nick Schumacher (2-1), who allowed one run in one inning and was charged with just his second blown save of the year before his team rallied in the bottom of the ninth. Ortega (0-2) suffered the loss after giving up two runs on six hits over 1.2 frames.
The late drama overshadowed a game that saw West Michigan pull off a pair of valiant comebacks.
Trailing 4-0 in the top of the sixth, the Whitecaps exploded for a furious one-out rally in which seven consecutive hitters reached base. Jordan Lennerton got it started with a one-out single and advanced to third after a fielder's choice and an error allowed Avisail Garcia to reach base. Alexis Espinoza and Mike Gosse each followed with run-scoring singles to cut the deficit in half, while Luis Palacios cranked a two-run double into the left field corner to tie the score. With the infield drawn in, Eric Roof capped the rally with a single through the middle that gave West Michigan a 5-4 lead.
But in a game where neither time was willing to give up, the TinCaps battled back. Nate Freiman doubled and scored in the seventh, tying the game on a base hit by Edinson Rincon. One inning later, Liriano led off with a two-base hit and scored on a knock by Danny Payne as Fort Wayne recaptured a 6-5 lead.
In the top of the ninth, it was the Whitecaps turn. Jamie Johnson led off with a double against Schumacher, who entered play tied for third in the Midwest League with eight saves. The next batter was Michael Rockett, who flared a bloop-single down the right field line to score Johnson and make it a 6-6 game.
Early on, Fort Wayne seized control with a four-run rally in the bottom of the fourth.
Everett Williams drew a leadoff walk and Freiman smacked a ground rule double that became lodged in the padding around a piece of signage on the left field wall. Jason Hagerty followed by bouncing a two-run single up the middle that not only gave the TinCaps a lead, but also glanced off the outreached throwing hand of Jade Todd and forced the Whitecaps starter out of the game. Reliever Nathan Newman eventually worked his way out of the inning, but not before issuing three walks - including two with the bases loaded - as Fort Wayne took a 4-0 lead.
The Whitecaps continue their eight-game, seven-day road trip with the finale of a four-game set at Fort Wayne on Monday, May 24. First pitched is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. with RHP Trevor Feeney (4-3, 3.32) slated to start for West Michigan against RHP Daniel Sarria (1-0, 2.21) of the TinCaps. The Whitecaps will return to Fifth Third Ballpark on Friday, May 28, to start a season-long 10-game homestand with The Score Night, featuring a special visit from the ZOOperstars zany entertainment act. Season, group and individual tickets can be reserved by calling the Whitecaps front office at 616-784-4131 or visiting whitecapsbaseball.com.