With his club in last place and saddled with the worst record in the league at the end of the first half, Class A Fort Wayne manager Anthony Contreras kept his eyes on the big picture.
But even he might have had a hard time predicting a berth in the Midwest League Championship Series. Yet that's where he and the TinCaps find themselves, three wins shy of winning the franchise's first title in eight years.
Michel Baez allowed two hits and a walk while striking out seven in five innings as Fort Wayne shut out Dayton, 3-0, on Monday night at Fifth Third Field to win the decisive game in the best-of-3 Midwest League semifinals.
Video: Fort Wayne's Baez notches his seventh strikeout
The TinCaps return to the Championship Series for the first time since 2012 on the strength of their second straight shutout and the No. 7 Padres prospect's second consecutive scoreless outing of the postseason. The club allowed one earned run in the three-game series, none over the final 19 innings.
"To come back from last place in the first half and see the adjustments made and how we came together was great and rewarding," Contreras said of his club's 42-28 second-half record. "Our pitching has been phenomenal the entire second half. I said all along that we'd go as far as our pitching would take us. It's great to see these guys getting the job done in big situations. It's huge for their confidence and for the rest of their careers."
Baez (2-0) took the mound in the bottom of the first inning with a 1-0 lead after No. 23 Padres prospect Hudson Potts' solo homer. The 21-year-old ran into trouble when Randy Ventura reached on a throwing error by Fort Wayne's Gabriel Arias. An errant pickoff throw by Baez and a walk to Taylor Trammell put runners at the corners with one out, but the TinCaps caught both runners attempting to execute a double steal to end the frame.
Gameday box score
The native of Havana, Cuba was in control after that. Baez struck out the side in the second and surrendered singles to Cassidy Brown in the third and Bruce Yari in the fourth. He fanned two of the last three batters he faced and departed after throwing 71 pitches -- 44 for strikes.
"His [6-foot-8] stature gives him great leverage to throw that upper-90s fastball," the 33-year-old manager said. "He also can drop in that curve and changeup when he wants to that keeps the hitter off balance. Good pitchers can do that. If you can manage to control two -- and in his case three -- pitches, you'll be successful."
Video: Fort Wayne's Potts gets it going with a solo shot
Baez went 7-2 with a 2.54 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings with the Rookie-level Arizona League Padres and TinCaps in his professional debut. After blanking Bowling Green in Fort Wayne's playoff opener, the right-hander has pitched 12 scoreless innings while allowing seven hits and two walks with 16 strikeouts.
"His poise and competitiveness in his first year as a pro have been outstanding," Contreras said. "He's a soft-spoken guy that doesn't exert a large amount of excess energy. He just does what he needs to do and he's been a solid force for us all year."
Potts also doubled after coming into the game 1-for-14 in the playoffs. Ronald Bolanos, Dauris Valdez and Hansel Rodriguez combined to allow one hit and a walk while striking out five over four innings of relief.
Starter Andrew Jordan (0-1) surrendered three runs on three hits and a walk in 1 1/3 innings for Daytona. The Dragons scored once in the final 26 innings and batted .178 in the series.
Fort Wayne will meet Quad Cities in the Game 1 of the Midwest League Championship Series beginning Wednesday night.
Complete playoff coverage
In other Midwest League playoff action:
River Bandits 6, Kernels 1
Kit Scheetz gave up a run on three hits and a walk while fanning nine over 6 1/3 innings and Josh Rojas drove in three runs as Quad Cities closed out the other semifinal. Cedar Rapids' Aaron Whitefield hit a solo homer and walked twice. The River Bandits return to the Finals for the 12th time in club history and for the first time since winning a 10th championship in 2013. Gameday box score