AVON — It’s been anything but “Home, Sweet Home” for the Lake Erie Crushers this season.
Faced this week with an important three-game series with front-running Joliet at Sprenger Stadium, the Crushers came up empty.
Thursday night’s 5-1 loss completed the sweep and dropped Lake Erie to 15-23 at home.
The loss, coupled with Southern Illinois’ 1-0 win over River City, dropped the Crushers (42-39) a half-game out of the wild-card race with 15 games remaining. Third-place Lake Erie trails Joliet by five games in the Frontier League’s East Division.
“Starting pitching didn’t really set the tone for us,” Lake Erie manager Cameron Roth said. “We just couldn’t eliminate the big inning. Even minimize. Let’s not just let four get across, let’s have two. We could have cut it in half.”
Joliet batted around and scored four runs in the third inning. It was all the offense the Slammers needed to beat hard-luck starter Justin Sinibaldi (1-4). Sinibaldi was forced into the rotation due to some injuries. Normally, he’s been a reliable backend bullpen pitcher.
“It’s the old cliche,” said Joliet manager Jeff Isom, who had the same role for the Crushers in 2013.
“We threw the ball very well this series and got some timely hitting. We’ve got 15 games left and we’re taking it one day at a time.”
Joliet seemed to take advantage of every little thing in all three games, starting with an 11-inning, 5-3 win Tuesday. The Slammers hit in the clutch and made the big plays in the field.
Joliet outscored Lake Erie 22-9 in the sweep, but Zach Racusin, who had two hits Thursday, still believes the Crushers are alive in the postseason race.
“Tuesday night was a tough one – extra-inning game,” Racusin said. “We just have to take it one game at a time. It’s a long season. We’ve got a good group in here. There’s still a decent chunk of games left and it’s a good thing we get to see these guys (Joliet) again at our place next week. We still control our destiny.”
Joliet produced when it had to. Lake Erie couldn’t.
The Crushers struck out eight times Thursday and didn’t draw one walk. Meanwhile, Joliet walked seven times.
“They got some breaks as far as offensively, just getting the hits when they needed to,” Roth said of the Slammers. “That’s a big thing, especially for our team going down the stretch — having confidence and having confidence in the box. They’re in first place and they’re hitting .250 — like us. It’s not like they’re a powerhouse, but when you have guys that are confident in the box, it makes a world of difference.”
Lake Erie’s only run came in the bottom of the sixth when back-to-back doubles by Dane Hutcheon and Joel McKeithan put runners on second and third. Hutcheon had to hold at second to be sure the ball wasn’t caught.
Cody Lenahan’s short fly ball to left was tracked down but dropped by shortstop Chaz Meadows, allowing Hutcheon to score. But Terry McClure and Dalton Wheat both grounded out with no further damage.
The Crushers left runners in scoring position in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings.
Lake Erie, a league-best 27-16 on the road, is at Schaumburg tonight for a three-game series.