By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
MANKATO — MANKATO--A record of number of dogs roamed Franklin Rogers Park Tuesday for the team's annual Bark in the Park Night; the pooches were treated to a long evening of hits, walks, hit batters, pitching changes and runs.
Though never seriously in doubt, the outcome wasn't revealed until past the three-hour mark as the Mankato MoonDogs' three-inning burst of runs proved enough to survive a late Willmar rally in a 9-4 win in the first of a three-game Northwoods League series.
"The game kind of changed after we put up those early runs," Mankato manager Mike Orchard. "We might've left some more runs on the board, but today was probably the best we've hit all season."
The MoonDogs (8-6) got to Willmar starter Zack Tillery early and often, driving the right-hander out of the game after only three innings. After a scoreless first, Tim Lynch led off the second inning with a slap single down the left-field line, advancing to second on a fielding error by Willmar's Colton Bottomley.
Jake Ellison followed with a single and, after Lynch scored, Jonathan Rodriguez brought Ellison home with an RBI grounder. With two outs, Ryan Rosthenhausler shot a double into the right-center gap, scoring Ellison and giving Mankato a 2-0 cushion.
The MoonDogs repeated the script in the third, when singles by Zach Zehner and Ellison and another error by Bottomley led to a pair of runs and a 4-0 lead for Mankato starter Cameron Giannnini.
"We hit really well against (Tillery)," Ellison said. "Once you get going like that, running the bases and hitting, it's contagious."
Willmar reliever Bradley Emmery fared even worse in his one inning of relief. The MoonDogs battered the southpaw with five hits, including three doubles. Ellison's added his third hit, a 2-RBI double to the left-center wall, and later scored on a passed ball to complete a five-run fourth inning and increase the lead to 9-0.
After four innings, the MoonDogs had out-hit the Stingers 12-0, and finished with 19 hits in eight innings. Catcher Kendall Patrick was the only Mankato starter rendered hitless.
Willmar spoiled Giannini's shutout and no-hit bid in the fifth with four hits, leading to two runs. Giannini was pulled after the inning for Trey Higgenbotham, who hit two batters and walked another before he was relieved with the bases loaded and no outs by lefty Mike Nowak.
Nowak righted the ship, allowing a lone run and leaving the bases loaded after striking out Brian Olson. The MoonDogs had a chance to further pad the lead in the sixth, but Rosthenhausler flew out to center with the bases loaded.
"(Nowak) came up big for us," Orchard said. "If they get a bloop there and get a couple more runs, or hit a grand slam, obviously that would change the whole game...we got some really solid pitching tonight."
The nine-run lead proved necessary when Willmar further cut into the deficit with two outs in the eighth when Logan Moon cracked a triple to left-center, scoring Bottomley and putting the score at 9-4. Moon was stranded at third after Nowak retired Jake Kronsky for his third strikeout of the inning.
Jesse Harbin pitching a scoreless ninth for the MoonDogs, and notched the team's 13th strikeout of the game.
"We're starting to play some good baseball," Orchard said. "But we know this is a day-to-day game. You're only as good as your next day's starter."
Mankato hosts Willmar (8-5) again tonight at Franklin Rogers Park.