MARION — Baseball is a game of firsts. First-pitch strike. Get the first hitter on base. Score the game’s first run.
The Miners have put checkmarks in all those boxes lately, which is why they now have their longest winning streak of the season after Friday night’s rain-delayed 6-3 win over Schaumburg at Rent One Park.
Their ninth straight victory came with a couple of bonuses. Evansville’s 2-1 loss at Washington allowed Southern Illinois to jump the Otters for second place in the Frontier League’s West Division. Florence’s 8-4 setback at River City reduced its lead over the Miners to four games in the West.
In improving to 43-33, the first time they’ve been 10 games north of .500 since June 21, the Miners did what they’ve done consistently during their roll. They scored first for the ninth straight game and kept adding on, plating at least five runs for the eighth time in nine games.
“It’s been a proven formula for a lot of years in baseball,” manager Mike Pinto said. “Score first and keep putting pressure on your opponent, give your pitcher a chance to breathe a little bit. We’ve done that the last week or so.”
It was backed up with solid pitching as well. Chase Cunningham (8-4) turned in his usual quality start, lasting 6 2/3 and yielding only two runs off five hits with two walks and eight strikeouts. Cunningham leads the league with 106 strikeouts, 42 more than he’s ever had in a season.
Nick Durazo and Jordan Brink took it home from there. Brink garnered his sixth save by firing a scoreless ninth, striking out the side to give him 55 strikeouts over 35 1/3 innings.
The Boomers’ arrival in town presented conflicting stats. While they won six of the first nine matchups with Southern Illinois, they also limped in with a six-game losing streak during which they managed only 11 runs, dropping them out of first place in the East Division.
After a 57-minute rain delay, it took the Miners just 1 2/3 innings to pounce on one of their starters from the stretch run last year, lefty Aaron Rozek. He beat Cunningham 12-3 last month in Schaumburg, but Rozek (5-4) found trouble after retiring the first two hitters in the second.
Arturo Nieto singled, followed by the first of two Taylor Sparks ground-rule doubles. Joe Duncan blooped a two-run single to left and Southern Illinois was off and running.
Gianfranco Wawoe made it 3-0 in the third with an RBI single up the middle that scored Yeltsin Gudino, who ripped a one-out double to the left field corner.
The Boomers (38-38) briefly got back into contention in the fourth with a two-out rally. Quincy Nieporte laced an RBI double into the left field corner, then trotted home when Nick Oddo pulled a run-scoring single just inside first base.
But the Miners wasted no time formulating a response. Sparks drilled his second ground-rule double to left-center to score Kyle Davis, and a Joe Duncan infield out chased Nieto home. Rozek threw an 0-2 wild pitch with Jarrod Watkins at bat to plate Sparks.
“You talk about a next man up philosophy,” Pinto said. “If a guy doesn’t get a base hit in front of you, it’s your turn. They’re playing like a team. You can tell in the clubhouse and in the dugout that they’re pulling for each other.”
Given the extra cushion, Cunningham found his second wind, retiring seven straight hitters and lasting through 113 pitches before departing after a two-out walk in the seventh. It was his 14th quality start in 17 appearances.
Southern Illinois shoots for a 10th straight win at 6:05 Saturday night against Schaumburg righthander Matt Miller (3-4, 4.18). The Miners have yet to name a starting pitcher.