When two Spokane starters got injured two weeks ago and left town for good, the Indians’ depth took a hit. Left fielder Mike Bianucci had added a big bat to the lineup, hitting .316, and Jason Ogata offered a solid mitt at second base.
But in Spokane’s 6-4 win over Boise on Tuesday, it became clear that others – coming off injuries, no less – have stepped up to the plate.
By going 3 for 4, shortstop-turned-second-baseman Kyle Higgins further cooked his hot bat, streaking seven hits in a row and finishing 7 for 8 over the past two nights. Two weeks ago, he returned after a 10-day hiatus due to a back injury.
Likewise, starting pitcher Richard Bleier shined by throwing four strikeouts and walking one in six innings. Though he allowed all of the Hawks’ four runs, just one of them was earned. Bleier recently came off a rehab program after injuring his shoulder.
Their budding contribution, plus the Indians’ recently renewed power at the plate, have given Spokane (50-25) some momentum heading into the Northwest League Championship Series. The playoffs begin Thursday at Avista Stadium versus Salem-Keizer (40-35), which clinched the West Division title Tuesday.
“You know, the playoffs are a strange thing,” Spokane manager Tim Hulett said. “Sometimes it’s those guys that have played (smaller) roles or different things (who) come out and have big playoffs. So, anything’s possible at this stage.”
Higgins jump-started a big fifth inning for the Indians, streaking a double down the right-field line. He made it to third – and Jared Bolden made it to first – on a Boise fielding error, then both scored when Jacob Kaase lined a single to center field.
David Paisano made it a three-run inning by driving in Kaase with a single. The Indians had tied the game at 4 and never trailed Boise (43-32) again.
In the bottom of the sixth, three hits – one a single by Higgins – gave Spokane the lead. The Indians scored an insurance run in the eighth when Boise catcher Pat Mahoney – playing in his eighth NWL game – overthrew third base for an error.
“It was good to see the offense swing the bat tonight,” Hulett said. “We had been getting 10 hits on a regular basis, even on nights we weren’t swinging the bat very well. And then we went through a spell where it was more like six or seven, and really didn’t have anything going.
“But tonight we had a lot stuff going, and of course Higgins was phenomenal.”
Higgins led his team to 12 total hits and Bleier helped limit Boise to seven hits.
“Definitely couldn’t have picked a better time to get hot,” said Higgins, whose father was in town to see the streak. “I mean, there’s quite possibly a five-game playoff series. It’s not easy to stay hot for that many games. So hopefully I can carry it in and have a solid playoff series, and help us get a championship here.”
The Green Brook, N.J., native said he hasn’t felt this good at the plate since he was in Little League. But he said he can’t fill the shoes of Bianucci and Ogata on his own – everyone needs to step up for the playoffs.
Likewise, Bleier said he was pretty happy with his performance, except for the fifth inning. The Hawks hit three singles before left fielder Jared Bolden missed a routine fly ball for an error. Boise netted three runs that inning, but Bleier was charged with just one earned run.
Boise took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning after Kyler Burke reached base on shortstop Jake Kaase’s error. But Spokane quickly knotted the score in its half of the inning with Joey Butler’s solo home run to right field.
For tonight’s regular-season finale – at 6:30 at Avista Stadium – Hulett said he plans to use his bullpen from the get-go and give his starting pitchers a rest. Reliever Yoon-Hee Nam is expected to start, and each pitcher will face just a few batters, Hulett said.
“It should be interesting, how the game gets pieced together,” Bleier said. “Hopefully (Nam) throws well and just keeps everyone in shape and ready for the playoffs, so everyone’s ready to go.”
With a victory tonight the Indians would post the second best record in team history at 51-25. A loss would tie the mark of the 2003 squad. The 1987 Indians went 54-22.