(Eastlake, OH) - Juan Hillman was brilliant once again on Sunday afternoon, leading the Lake County Captains (9-9, 36-51) to victory over the West Michigan Whitecaps (13-5, 58-27). For the second time in three starts, the southpaw flirted with a no-hitter, but the Captains had to escape a treacherous ninth inning to walk away with a nail-biting, 5-4 win at Classic Park.
Ryder Ryan took the ball in the ninth with the Captains ahead by two runs, 5-3. In search of his fifth save, the right-hander promptly surrendered a leadoff double to Danny Pinero and an RBI single to center by Anthony Pereira, cutting Lake County's advantage to 5-4.
The Whitecaps were far from finished. Austin Athmann hit a roller to shortstop and Luke Wakamatsu air-mailed the throw to first. Pereira ran all the way to third and Athmann moved up to second base. Ryan then loaded the bases by walking Drew Longley. Cue the dramatics.
Ryan buckled down with the bags full and nobody out in a one-run game. The right-hander struck out Zac Shepherd swinging, Jose Quero swinging and Chad Sedio swinging to end the ballgame and seal a close victory for Lake County. Ryan earned his fifth save.
Hillman earned the win and was the story from the start of Sunday's ballgame and the feeling was awfully familiar. Two starts ago, Hillman took a perfect game into the sixth inning against Great Lakes and had a no-hitter through 6.1 innings before surrendering a hit. This time facing West Michigan, Hillman set down the first 11 batters he faced before hitting Pereira with one out in the fourth. Hillman kept his no-hitter intact until the sixth when Cole Bauml hit a two-out blooper into shallow left field. Conner Capel slid, but could not make the catch and Bauml's single ended the no-hit bid.
Pinero followed Bauml's single with a two-run home run, but Hillman recovered. Lake County's starter retired the final four men he faced and ended his outing with just two runs and two hits allowed over seven innings. Hillman (4-4) set a new career-high with nine strikeouts and did not walk a batter en route to the win.
The Captains' offense provided Hillman with enough early run support to set the lefty's mind at ease. West Michigan starter Trent Szkutnik started strong by retiring the first seven men he faced, but the Captains struck in the third. Alexis Pantoja notched Lake County's first hit with a one-out single and Wakamatsu followed two batters later with a two-run homer to left field.
Wakamatsu's blast gave the Captains a 2-0 lead and Lake County extended the lead to 4-0 two innings later. Jose Medina led off the fifth with a single and Pantoja followed with a single. With runners on first and second, Miguel Eladio dropped down a bunt and raced to first for an infield hit to load the bases with nobody out. Szkutnik struck out Wakamatsu, but then walked Mitch Longo to force in Medina from third.
Szkutnik's bases-loaded walk ended his day on the hill and right-hander Zac Houston came in from the West Michigan bullpen. Houston got Chu to hit a check-swing dribbler toward first base and Quero made a fine play, gloving the ball and quickly firing to home to force out Pantoja. Houston, however, walked Emmanuel Tapia to bring home Eladio and give the Captains a 4-0 advantage.
Pinero's homer against Hillman trimmed the Captains' lead to 4-2, but the Captains got an insurance run in the sixth, though it came at a price. Houston hit Junior Soto on the hands with a pitch to lead off the inning and Soto had to be removed from the game with an apparent injury. Elvis Perez came in to replace Soto.
Houston then walked Medina and Pantoja sacrifice bunted the runners into scoring position. The Whitecaps called on right-hander Jake Shull to relieve Houston and face Eladio, but the Captains' second baseman dunked a single center that scored Perez to give Lake County a 5-2 lead.
The Whitecaps prevented Lake County from doing further damage in the inning. After Eladio's flare dropped in, centerfielder Sam Machonis fired to third base, but Medina slid in ahead of the throw. Shepherd, the third baseman, then re-routed the ball to second base where Pereira tagged out Eladio at second. Wakamatsu then popped out to end the inning.
West Michigan inched closer in the eighth when Sedio hit a line drive home run against Alsis Herrera, but Ryan's high-pressure pitching performance nailed down a close win for the Captains. The victory snapped a four-game winning streak for West Michigan and ended Lake County's three-game losing skid.
Szkutnik (4-1) suffered the loss for the Whitecaps. The left-hander pitched 4.1 innings and was responsible for four runs on five hits. Szkutnik walked one batter, hit one batter and struck out four.
The Captains and Whitecaps wrap up their four-game series on Monday night. First pitch at Classic Park is scheduled for 7:00 PM.
Individual game tickets for all Captains games are on sale at the Classic Park box office, online at captainsbaseball.com and by phone at 440-954-WINS (9467). 12- and 20-game mini ticket plans for the 2017 season are on sale now at great prices complete with several exclusive benefits. Information can be found at the Captains website www.captainsbaseball.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.