MARION — With one swing Tuesday night, Chance Shepard erased three-plus hours of frustration and lifted the Miners to an improbable win.
Shepard’s three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning off Evansville closer Mitchell Aker gave Southern Illinois a dramatic 5-3 win at Rent One Park, keeping it within three games of first-place Normal in the Frontier League’s West Division and enabling it to avoid its fourth losing streak of at least four games in less than two months.
It was the 20th homer this year for Shepard, who pounced on a hanging 1-2 breaking ball from Aker (1-5) and launched a no-doubt clout over the left field fence.
“I was just trying to make him elevate the ball,” said Shepard. “He got me earlier in the at-bat with a couple of good breaking balls. He hung that one.”
The outlook entering their last licks was bleak for the Miners. They had spent the first eight innings flailing and failing with men on base. They put runners on in every inning but the second, but left 10 men aboard, scoring only when Harrison Bragg cracked a solo homer off Austin Nicely with one out in the fourth.
Pinch-hitter Kyle Davis started the winning rally with a single to left and Joe Duncan followed with another single to left. A passed ball by catcher Brant Whiting moved both men up 90 feet. Romeo Cortina’s fielder’s choice grounder to short scored Davis, but Duncan was nailed trying to advance to third.
However, that baserunning gaffe didn’t amount to anything. Cortina swiped second, Southern Illinois’ third steal of the game, and Nolan Earley coaxed a walk to set the stage for Shepard’s second walkoff bomb this year against the Otters (35-37).
Zach Hartman (1-0) worked around two walks in the top of the ninth to pick up his first win with the Miners. It prevented starter Geno Encina from eating another tough loss in a season full of them.
Encina, who entered the game with a 3.48 earned run average and a 3-6 record, fell behind 3-0 in the third. First baseman Austin Bush belted a two-run homer off him in the second and Ryan Long drilled a solo shot an inning later.
But Encina kept his team in the game, denying Evansville in the sixth by inducing a 5-3 double play from Zach Walz after the Otters filled the bases with one out.
Reliever Nick Durazo came up big an inning later, stranding three when he got a first pitch comebacker from Whiting.
“Pitching staff kept us in it,” Shepard said. “Geno and Nick came up with big pitches to get us out of jams.”
Encina pitched 6 2/3 innings, yielding eight hits and three runs. He walked three, one intentionally, and whiffed six in a 110-pitch outing.
Nicely gave up four hits and a run over six innings with four walks and five strikeouts. He was on the verge of his second win over Southern Illinois before its last-ditch comeback.
The Miners finish this series with a 5:30 p.m. doubleheader on Thursday. They will send Steven Ridings (7-5, 3.86) to the mound in the opener against Tyler Beardsley (4-5, 2.93), while Kurt Heyer (6-5, 3.62) works the nightcap opposite Evansville’s Tyler Vail (2-4, 5.94).