One big inning was too much for the Tulsa Drillers to overcome Wednesday night at Northwest Arkansas. The Naturals used a four-run second inning to take an early lead, then held off a late rally from the Drillers to record a 6-4 win at Arvest Ballpark.
The result allowed the Naturals to keep their second-half title hopes alive, and eliminated the Drillers. Despite the elimination, Tulsa has already booked its spot in the Texas League playoffs on the strength of its first-half North Division title.
In the second-half race, Tulsa is now five games behind first-place Arkansas and three games behind second-place Northwest Arkansas with only five games remaining in the regular season. Because of the matchups over the final five days, it is now impossible for the Drillers to catch both the Travelers and Naturals in the standings.
Tulsa will face the eventual second-half winner in the best-of-five North Division Playoff Series that will begin on Wednesday, September 4 at ONEOK Field. Game two will be played in Tulsa on Thursday, September 5. The final three games will be played in the ballpark of the second-half winner.
In Wednesday's loss, the Drillers fell into an early hole with the the Naturals big second inning. The rally began when Lane Adams drew a leadoff walk from Tim Gustafson, and Edinson Rincon singled in front of a walk to Matt Fields to load the bases with no outs.
Rey Navarro plated the game's first run with a sacrifice fly, and Mitch Canham followed with a two-run triple. Brett Eibner singled home Canham to complete the big inning and give the Naturals a 4-0 lead.
Kiel Roling, who was playing in is first game since August 16 due to a strained forearm, got the Drillers on the board in the fourth inning. Roling led off with his team-leading 24th home run of the season.
After the homer, Tyler Kuhn and Dustin Garneau produced back-to-back singles. A sacrifice bunt by Joey Wong and a sacrifice fly from Jayson Langfels cut the Drillers deficit to 4-2.
Langfels pulled Tulsa to within one run in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the bases empty, the third baseman delivered a long home run to left field that made it 4-3. It was the 13th homer of the season for Langfels.
The Drillers would get no closer as the Naturals tacked on another run in the bottom of the seventh. With one out, Eibner delivered his 19th home run of the season to up the Northwest Arkansas lead to 5-3. Of his 19 homers, 8 have now come against Tulsa.
A two-out rally from the Naturals in the eighth, highlighted by another triple from Canham, left the Drillers three runs behind. With two outs, Navarro singled and scored on Canham's second triple of the game.
Trailing 6-3, Tulsa did not go quietly in the top of the ninth. The inning began with three straight singles from Delta Cleary Jr., Cristhian Adames and Kyle Parker. The hit by Parker plated Cleary Jr. to cut the Naturals lead to two runs.
With runners at first and second and Roling at the plate, a base running mistake severely damaged Tulsa's hopes of a comeback. Roling hit a chopper up the middle that second baseman Navarro fielded but had trouble getting out of his glove. He finally flipped to shortstop Calixte too late to retire Parker, but the Drillers' outfielder thought he had been called out and left the base, allowing Calixte to tag him for the first out of the inning.
Naturals closer Zach Jackson then got a one-hopper back to the mound from Kuhn that turned into a game-ending double play.
The Drillers lost despite out-hitting the Naturals 15-9 and they left 10 runners on base. Parker led Tulsa with three hits, while Cleary Jr., Roling, Langfels and Juan Crousset added two hits each.
Gustafson survived the tough second inning and kept the Drillers in the game. The right-hander lasted 6.2 innings, allowing 7 hits and 5 runs. The loss dropped his record to 6-12.
The Drillers will play the third game of their four-game series with the Naturals Thursday night at Arvest Ballpark. The pitching matchup will feature Daniel Winkler (1-1, 3.48 ERA) against Ryan Verdugo (0-0, 0.00 ERA). First pitch is scheduled for 7:00PM in Springdale.