MARION — About three hours before Tuesday night’s series opener with Florence, Miners manager Mike Pinto talked about what’s helped his team cohere to make a run at the Frontier League playoffs.
“These guys have fun and they get along as well as any group I’ve had,” he said. “You have a guy like Ryan McAuliffe, who’s from Boston, and Arturo Nieto, who’s from Venezuela, and they’re two of the funniest guys I’ve been around. They keep things loose.”
It’s easy to be loose when you’re winning games the way Southern Illinois has been since the calendar flipped to August.
McAuliffe did his part to keep the Miners on their recent roll, quashing West Division leader Florence on two hits through seven scoreless innings in a 6-3 win at Rent One Park.
It was the 11th win in 12 games for Southern Illinois (45-34), which drew within two games of the slumping Freedom (48-33) for first place. It was the fourth straight loss for Florence, which after absorbing a 40-run pummeling from River City in a weekend sweep found no relief against the league’s hottest team.
Playing their first game after Schaumburg ended their season-high 10-game winning streak Sunday with a 5-2, 11-inning verdict, the Miners took command with a four-run third inning. They added two more in the fourth, and those runs were superfluous with McAuliffe dealing.
The righthander didn’t allow a hit until Ricky Ramirez nearly beheaded him with a two-out single in the fourth. Trevor Craport followed by looping a single to center, but McAuliffe mowed down the last 10 men he faced before giving way to sidearmer Ian Codina for the eighth.
It was the fourth straight quality start for McAuliffe (5-3), who has ceded only five runs in his last 27 innings. He walked one and fanned five, getting a spate of outs with a late-moving fastball that consistently led to weak contact.
“Getting those runs early certainly allowed McAuliffe to have some presence tonight,” Pinto said. “I thought he threw tremendously well. I didn’t want to push him beyond seven innings tonight because we’re starting him again on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, Southern Illinois cracked the code on lefthander George Faue (2-2) on its second pass through the order. It started with a one-out walk to Joe Duncan, followed by Kirvin Moesquit’s single that pushed Duncan to third.
Omar Obregon grounded a single to left-center to initiate scoring. Yeltsin Gudino then executed a perfect safety squeeze bunt down the first base line, and it bounced past Faue for an RBI single to make it 2-0.
With two outs, Jamey Smart poked a single to left that plated Obregon from second. Kyle Davis then stretched his hitting streak to 12 games by lacing an RBI double to the left field corner for a 4-0 advantage.
It got no better for Faue in the fourth. Taylor Sparks unloaded a towering homer to left that appeared to glance off a light pole – about two-thirds of the way up it – to start the inning. Moesquit was plunked with one out, reached second on a groundout and sped home on Gudino’s single to center.
The Freedom injected a touch of suspense into matters in the eighth. Isaac Benard drilled a two-run single to center that Duncan misplayed into a three-base error. Benard scored standing up to cut the Miners’ lead to 6-3.
The drama stretched no farther. Codina and Nick Durazo wriggled their way out of the eighth, and Gabe Gentner breezed through a 1-2-3 ninth for his ninth save.
Pinto was happy with Southern Illinois’ defense. Gudino made a pair of highlight-film plays at shortstop, including a barehand grab and throw in the same motion that denied Caleb Lopes an infield hit immediately after Florence’s runs.
“That was incredible, an exceptional play,” Pinto said. “We’ve played some defense of late as well. We’ve just played very good baseball the last two weeks.”
Southern Illinois tries for its sixth consecutive series win tonight at 6:35 p.m. It will send ace Chase Cunningham (8-4, 3.58) to the mound against righthander Zak Spivy (1-5, 2.74).