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Streaking Dukes find .500 mark tough to reach, tougher to hold

Ruben Cardona sat silently in front of his locker Monday night, contemplating how subtle the difference can be between winning and losing -- a difference the Duluth-Superior Dukes demonstrated when they opened this week's seven-game homestand at ...

Ruben Cardona sat silently in front of his locker Monday night, contemplating how subtle the difference can be between winning and losing -- a difference the Duluth-Superior Dukes demonstrated when they opened this week's seven-game homestand at Wade Municipal Stadium with a 3-2 loss to Schaumburg.
Last week, the Dukes hit the road and won three straight games at Schaumburg to climb up over the .500 mark, then they went to Lincoln, Neb., where they lost three straight to slip back under sea level.
Back home at Wade, they played well and won a lot of little victories, but they dropped the only one that mattered in the 3-2 loss to Schaumburg. Cardona had two chances to be the hero, after the Dukes had seen a 2-0 lead dissolve, and his 0-for-5 night belied how close he had come to delivering two pivotal hits.
The biggest hometown impact of the game was by Justin Craker, a husky right-hander who grew up in Superior, played high school ball for the Spartans and went off to Valparaiso, where he just graduated as one of the nation's top college relief pitchers. He joined Schaumberg as a reliever and in his first start pitched the first six innings for the Flyers, yielding two runs on a bad-hop single, while limiting the Dukes to five hits, with four walks, a hit batter and five strikeouts.
The Monday game also was a whirlwind debut to pro baseball for shortstop Mike Theoharis, who was signed out of the University of Santa Clara and arrived in Duluth just in time to meet the team when it arrived from its week on the road. Theoharis was involved in numerous plays on both sides of the ball throughout the game, and manager Ed Nottle said he thought he acquitted himself well.
The Dukes missed chances to score in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, so, instead of climbing back to .500, the Dukes slipped to 14-16, leaving Nottle in a sour mood. "Obviously, we're in a bind," Nottle said, noting that two of the club's best hitters are out with injuries and great depth is not an asset of teams in the Northern League. "We had five rookies on the field tonight. I thought we played well, considering that.
"Aaron Runk has put a year together, and he's really improved defensively, but he jammed his thumb and he'll probably be out for a couple more games, at least," said Nottle. "It's on his left hand, not his throwing hand, but it's his top hand on the bat. And Brandon Pernell twisted his ankle pretty good, so we can't be sure when we'll get him back, either. He twisted it getting on the bus after a game."
Game injuries are inevitable, but when key players are hurt getting aboard the bus, you know you're not having a very good streak. In Monday's game against Schaumburg, the Dukes lost their fourth in a row to slip to 14-16.
The obvious difference was that the Flyers hit two home runs while coming from a 2-0 deficit to spoil a strong pitching performance by Kris Koslowski. Matt Nokes socked one to tie the game 2-2 in the fifth inning, and Christian Franco hit one to left-center in the eighth to provide the winning margin.
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But the subtle things were the most painful.
In the ninth, Theoharis singled up the middle to lead off, took second on a wild pitch, and went to third when Mike Radwan grounded out. With two out, Cardona, the Dukes' leadoff man, came up against hard-throwing reliever Evan Fahrner and sliced an opposite-field liner to left, but Brian Shultz came in hard to make a shoestring catch and end the game.
In the last of the eighth, Eddie Lantigua led off with a double down the left-field line, and took third when Greg Morrison grounded to second. Eddie Gerald was walked intentionally. Designated hitter Chris Schwab hit a fly ball to medium center field, and Lantigua dashed back to third to tag up. When center-fielder Franco came in for the catch, Lantigua slid in, easily safe because the throw was 10 feet wide to the right.
Lantigua, however, left third a split second too soon, so the only question was whether the umpires had noticed. The Flyers quickly appealed the play, and, sure enough, Lantigua was called out. So, instead of a 3-3 tie, the Dukes were the victims of a weird double play.
In the seventh, Tim Hunt had singled leading off, and Theoharis couldn't duck quickly enough to avoid getting clunked on the helmet by a Justin Craker pitch. Radwan, who had driven in both Dukes runs in the second, walked to fill the bases with nobody out, bringing in reliever Val Mencas, who threw three balls to Cardona before coming back for a strike. On the next pitch, Cardona sent a screaming line drive hooking down the first base line. For an instant, it appeared that the hit would drive home at least two, but instead, first baseman Mac Mackiewitz speared it with his big glove and easily doubled Theoharris off second.
It wasn't as though the Dukes had no luck or played poorly. In the second, Morrison led off with a single, and Gerald singled to right, and Schwab walked to load the bases with none out. Hunt struck out, and Theoharris -- in his first pro at-bat -- was called out on strikes on a 3-2 pitch. But Radwan hit a sharp grounder toward third, and the ball took a nasty hop, zipping over the left shoulder of third baseman Matt Donohue, and driving home both Morrison and Gerald for the 2-0 lead.
Shaky defense has been one of the problems for the Dukes this season, and with two-thirds of the outfield out injured and a new guy at short, there was little reason for optimism. But it was one of the slicker games at Wade this season, as Schaumburg got 10 hits and played errorlessly, while the Dukes added seven hits and had just one error. Hunt was strong in left, and had two hits, while Lahti played well in right.
Theoharis, who hit .302 with 7 home runs and 17 stolen bases for Santa Clara, was in the midst of the action all night, and a preliminary report would be "great glove, quick hands, quick feet, adequate arm, decent bat." He almost made a spectacular play in the second, when he dashed behind the bag for a diving stop of a base hit, but couldn't come up with the ball in time to get a force out at second. He later made a couple of routine plays, but he made a wild throw to first on Eddie Lara's grounder in the seventh for the team's error, but he came right back to charge and short-hop a grounder to retire Matos for the only time all game, leaving him 3-for-4.
With the bat, Theoharis took the called third strike his first at-bat, never swinging at six pitches. He made contact on his next trip, grounding out, then got bonked by the pitch. But he finished by aggressively singling in the ninth and winding up at third.
"For his first game in pro ball, I thought the kid looked good," said Nottle.

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