The first place Columbus Catfish scored a big win Sunday evening, blasting the 2nd place Asheville Tourists (Rockies) 7-3. The win extends their lead in the South Atlantic League Southern Division to 2-1/2 games, and drops their "magic number" to 12.
Matt Fields homered for the third time in two nights, driving in 3 runs and scoring twice to pace the Catfish.
Asheville drew first blood, when Bret Berglund hit a shot over the billboards in left field to put the visitors up 1-0. It was the first of just three hits allowed by Catfish starter Ryan Morse.
In the bottom of the inning, the Catfish tied it up. Ryan Royster led the inning with a walk, and moved to second on an errant pickoff attempt. Quinn Stewart grounded out to short, moving Royster to third. Fields drove in his first run of the game on a single to center, scoring Royster.
In the 4th inning, the Catfish took the lead. Nevin Ashley began things with a double, and moved to third on a ground out by Royster, then scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Stewart, making it 2-1.
The Catfish put up 3 more in the 7th. Fields and Matt Spring both singled to open the inning. Maiko Loyola, who rejoined the Catfish this week after a stint at Hudson Valley, ran for Spring. A botched pickoff attempt moved both runners up a base. Fields then outfoxed Asheville third baseman Geoff Strickland when Jairo De La Rosa bounced a ball to third. Strickland had Fields caught off base, but was unable to tag him out as Strickland and Fields danced back and forth before Fields narrowly avoided a tag at home, putting the Catfish up 3-1. De La Rosa reached first, and Loyola moved to third on the play. With 2 out, Cesar Suarez singled, scoring Loyola. Ashley singled, driving in De La Rosa.
Asheville scored an unearned run in the 8th, off reliever Ryan Reid, cutting it to 5-2.
In the 8th, Stewart reached when hit by a pitch. That's when Fields hit his 18th homer of the season, a 2-run shot over right field, giving the atfish a 7-2 lead.
Asheville's Michael McKenry hit a monster shot over the scoreboard, making ti 7-3. It was the only hit that closer Neal Frontz would allow, and the Catfish had the win, the series, and a bigger lead in the division.
Morse finished with 7 strikeouts in his 6 innings work, allowing 1 run on 3 hits. He picked up his 4th win of the year, and his 1st since May 2, breaking a string of 4 losing decisions. Reid pitched 2 innings, allowing an unearned run on 2 hits, striking out 4.
With a 2-1/2 game lead and 14 games left, the Catfish "magic number" to clinch the 2nd half division title is now 12 games. That means that any combination of Catfish wins or opponent losses totaling 12 gives the Catfish the title.
A canceled game with Kannapolis gives the Catfish a slight advantage, since they will only play 69 games in the 2nd half. Kannapolis and Savannah also will play just 69 games. The rest of the teams in the division will play all 70. Savannah was eliminated today. Greenville and Kannapolis are close to elimination.
The Catfish have 6 games left with 3rd place Charleston (32-23, 3 GB), and 8 games with last place (and eliminated Savannah (19-35, 15-1/2 GB).
Asheville (33-23, 2-1/2 GB) has 3 games left with Kannapolis (26-29, 9 GB), 3 with 1st half winner Augusta (31-25, 4-1/2 GB), 4 with North Division 2nd half leader Hickory (34-21, 6 GL), and 3 with Greenville (25-32, 11 GB). Asheville is already selling playoff tickets.
Charleston (32-23, 3 GB), against whom the Catfish also have a "magic number" of 12, have, in addition to the 6 games with the Catfish, 1 with Augusta (31-25, 4-1/2 GB), and 8 games with Rome (30-26, 5-1/2 GB).
Augusta (31-25, 4-1/2 GB), who won the 1st half and already has a playoff stop assured, has, besides 3 games with Asheville and 1 with Charleston, 7 with Greenville (25-32, 11 GB) and 3 with Kannapolis (26-29, 9 GB).
Rome (30-26, 5-1/2 GB) has, besides 8 games with Charleston, 6 games left with Savannah (19-35, 15-1/2 GB, eliminated).
If the Catfish maintain their lead, they'll be the first Columbus team to qualify for the playoffs since 2002, the last year the Columbus RedStixx (Indians) were in existence. They left for Eastlake, Ohio, in 2003 to become the Lake County Captains.