By Denny Weller
Special to The Free Press
---- — The Mankato MoonDogs tuned up for a pivotal two-game series with Duluth with a record-setting performance Saturday night in front of 1,204 fans at Franklin Rogers Park in Mankato.
First baseman John Michael Twichell belted a pair of towereing home runs over the right-field fence to set a franchise record for career home runs (22) as the MoonDogs pummeled hapless Thunder Bay 27-5, setting a Northwoods League record for runs in a game and tying the largest margin of victory. In all, the ‘Dogs unleashed a 21-hit barrage against the pitching-challenged Border Cats (19-43 overall, 6-21 in second half).
“This was a crazy one,” Twichell, said of Mankato’s season-best fifth straight win. “We just kept hitting the ball and they kept falling in for us.
“I was just trying to sit back and make it like a normal game. It was one of those games where you could kind of get yourself out or do good. I am not sure yet what the record means, it’s all kind of settling in but even though I am just trying to win games, it’s pretty cool.
“Our pitchers and hitters have been back each other up all year and it was huge for us to get seven innings from Zach (Hobbs). We were able to put some runs up for him and then he threw a great game. It’s going to come down to who has the most inensity over the final week of the year so we’ll come out with that intensity every game and see what happens.”
Mankato (35-27, 18-9) put up some gaudy offensive numbers in closing within one game of Duluth and a half a game from Willmar in the chase to face Waterloo in the North Division division series championship. Four players — Tim Arakawa, Chase Simpson, Twichell and Zack Zehner — ripped three hits apiece for the MoonDogs while Arakawa and Simpson each scored five runs.
Jonathan Rodriquez belted a solo home run in the second inning for the ‘Dogs before Twichell’s two-run blast sparked a three-run, third-inning burst. After the Border Cats scored twice off of Hobbs in the fourth frame, third baseman Josh Fuentes’ two-run single an inning later keyed a five-run surge. Zehner, who along with Twichell drove in six runs, also laced a run-scoring single.
Hobbs, making his first start of the season, set down the first nine Border Cats and finished up allowing just three hits in seven innings of work. He struck out four and walked two in gaining his first win of the year.
“I found out last night I was going to get the start so I started preparing right away,” Hobbs said. “It has been a big struggle for me in the bullpen so it felt to get back my element as a starter. I just threw it in the strike zone and trusted my defense behind me.
“There was a little nervousness on my part but the team handled it really well and we just came out and played baseball. ... This makes my season a lot better.”
Mankato erupted for 10 runs on eight hits in the seventh inning before a nine-run seventh-inning explosion set the NWL record for runs in a single contest. Twichell rocketed a three-run shot in the sixth frame and Zehner launced a grand slam an inning later.
Simpson ended up knocking in five runs for the winners while shortstop Alex Polston scored three times and collected two hits. Rodriquez, Fuentes and newcomer Ben Podobinski also had two hits each for the MoonDogs.
“Obviously, it got out of hand but our guys did a good job of staying with their at bats and playing with a purpose,” Mankato manager Mike Orchard said. “Zach Hobbs was awesome tonight and he allowed us to save our entire bullpen for the biggest series of the year.
“It should be a fun week ahead. We just need to play good baseball and see how it all shakes out.”
The MoonDogs host Duluth today in a 6:05 p.m. clash.