Stepping up to the plate in front of 25,000 screaming fans at the College World Series has a way of preparing a baseball player for the trials of the Minor Leagues.
So when Nelson Maldonado, who played on the University of Florida's national championship team in 2017, came up for South Bend in Game 1 of the Midwest League Championship Series, he wasn't fazed by the moment.
Maldonado snapped a string of 14 consecutive batters retired by Clinton's Remey Reed when he launched an 0-1 changeup over the left field fence, breaking a seventh-inning tie and sending the Cubs to a 3-1 victory in the opener of the best-of-5 series on Wednesday at Four Winds Field.
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"It definitely helped out," Maldonado said of his tournament experience with Florida. "That experience really helped me transition to this level and helped with my nerves. It helped significantly."
Selected in the 21st round of this year's Draft, Maldonado leads the Midwest League with eight postseason RBIs. The 23-year-old batted .414 in 15 games with Class A Short Season Eugene after a brief stint in the Rookie-level Arizona League. He joined South Bend on July 28 and hit .311 in 33 contests. He's 7-of-19 (.368) in five playoff games.
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"That run was huge for us," South Bend manager Buddy Bailey said of Maldonado's homer. "He had one of the biggest hits of the year for us in Fort Wayne. We were trying to clinch and he hit a bases-loaded triple. He's been a mainstay for us in the lineup."
Maldonado was the Cubs' designated hitter in Game 1. He was a third baseman/outfielder for the Gators until suffering a torn labrum, then moved to first base, the position he's played in South Bend. When he's 100 percent, the plan is to return to the outfield.
"Playing third and first and outfield, I think that will make me a valuable player," Maldonado said.
Rehabbing Cubs right-hander Kendall Graveman started for Bailey. He's coming off Tommy John surgery and has not pitched in the Major Leagues since May 11, 2018 with Oakland. After making one start in the AZL and another for Triple-A Iowa, the 28-year-old surrendered a run in the first inning before settling down. He ended up allowing one run on three hits with three strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings.
Christopher Torres and Jose Devers, the first two batters Graveman faced, lashed back-to-back doubles to give the LumberKings an instant 1-0 lead. Graveman uncorked a wild pitch to send Devers to third but struck out Marlins No. 29 prospect Peyton Burdick and got a big break when third baseman Levi Jordan snared a liner by 10th-ranked Kameron Misner and dived to third to double up Devers and end the opening frame.
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"To me, the ballgame was Levi Jordan's [unassisted double play] in the first," Bailey said. "A diving play turns into a double play, and then the two plays in the ninth to hold the lead were as good as you'll see in the big leagues."
Graveman was in charge after that and the Cubs tied it in the second as Jake Slaughter singled and scored on a forceout by Nelson Velazquez.
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After Graveman exited, Brandon Hughes, Zach Mort and Brian Glowicki limited the LumberKings to two hits over the final 5 1/3 innings. Glowicki, who had seven saves and a 1.38 ERA during the regular season, pitched the eighth and ninth and yielded one hit while fanning two.
"Glowicki has been solid for us," Bailey said. "We wanted to get him the lead. That home run came at a great time for us because the guy who has been our closer was ready to go. All of our pitchers threw strikes for the most part."
The Cubs padded their lead in the eighth when Velazquez reached on a throwing error by Torres and came home on a bunt by Clayton Daniel.
Game 2 is Thursday in South Bend.
Curt Rallo is a contributor to MiLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.