Minor league baseball sometimes can be an exercise in chaos, and the teams that handle it best usually come out on top.
The Tri-City Dust Devils turned potential bedlam into a big break during a 3-1 win over the Yakima Bears on Thursday at Gesa Stadium, keeping the Dust Devils tied for the best overall record in the Northwest League this season.
Tri-City, which won the East Division first-half championship, kept pace with Eugene, the first-half champ in the West, for the league's best record at 36-25. The Dust Devils also increased their second-half East lead to three games over Boise.
The NWL divisional playoffs begin Sept. 5 with a best-of-3 series. Tri-City will face the second-half East champion on the road in Game 1 to open the series and will play Games 2 and 3 at Gesa Stadium on Sept. 6-7.
"We're just trying to keep a rhythm. We want to peak when we get to the playoffs," said Dust Devils second baseman Tim Smalling, who drove in two of the team's three runs.
Tri-City led 3-1 heading into the ninth inning after Smalling's one-out RBI triple in the eighth, but Bears second baseman Danny Pulfer drew a walk off Dust Devils reliever William Rankin to lead off the frame.
The next batter, Jimmy Comerota, hit a ground ball to Smalling at second base. He threw to shortstop Taylor Featherston to get the force at second base, but base umpire Lee Meyers called Pulfer safe.
While several Tri-City infielders turned their attention to Meyers to protest the call, Pulfer thought he had a good opportunity to sneak his way over to third base.
But that turned out to be the wrong move.
"I immediately yelled, 'Three, three, three, runner!', and Langfels took off (for third) in a rundown. I'm glad he went," said Rankin, making his first appearance back in Tri-City since mid-June. The Colorado Rockies' 17th-round draft pick out of Southern Polytechnic State (Ga.) was first assigned to the Dust Devils but was then sent to Casper before the season began.
Tri-City manager Fred Ocasio headed out onto the field to argue the call before he saw Pulfer take off for third.
"He saved me about 30-40 dollars," Ocasio said, referencing the fine for a manager's ejection. "It was more of a baserunning error. He was trying to be aggressive. If it worked in his favor, it would have been a hell of a play."
Rankin (1-0) pitched 31/3 scoreless innings for his first NWL win.
But Tri-City still had to get the final two outs of the inning, and Comerota remained on first. Garrett Weber bounced a single to left to bring the tying run to the plate. A 2-2 pitch from Rankin came in high and tight to Carter Bell, hitting him in the helmet to load the bases.
Bell was not hurt, taking first after taking an extra minute with the trainer. But the Dust Devils were in trouble, facing a bases-loaded situation with one out and the go-ahead run coming to the plate in Henry Zabala.
Tri-City turned to left-hander Chris Dennis to close out the game, and the career saves leader from the University of Portland answered the call. Zabala fouled off a fastball at 1-2 before grounding into a game-ending double play to Featherston.
"Featherston, Smalling and (David) Hernandez have been turning a lot of double plays lately," Dennis said of the trio that combined for four twin killings in a 7-6 loss at Boise on Wednesday. "Our defense was outstanding today."
Dennis picked up his first save of the year.