The Albuquerque Isotopes’ playoff chances were on life support Saturday night.
Matt Flemer found a heartbeat.
The Isotopes’ starting pitcher gave up a solo home run in the first inning and then retired 20 in a row as Albuquerque defeated the El Paso Chihuahuas 5-4 to even their series at two wins apiece.
“This is a blast, man, you saw at the end of the game where (Brian) Schlitter is picking up (Raimel) Tapia and carrying him off the field,” Flemer said. “This group is having so much fun.”
El Paso (70-64) is still 4.5 games ahead of Albuquerque (65-68), with nine games remaining for the Chihuahuas and 10 games left for the Isotopes.
“It’s exciting to have games like this,” manager Glenallen Hill said. “That team over there, that’s a great team. You see how they fight and fight. I’m glad we came out on the winning side.”
Flemer (6-3) was simply ferocious on the mound. He allowed just two hits, the other a leadoff single to Manuel Margot in the first inning that was erased when Margot tried and failed to stretch it into a double.
“That was obviously just a good game plan,” Flemer said. “Christian Bergman showed the other night how to attack these guys, just to stick with it until they made an adjustment.”
Flemer never walked a batter and struck out five, throwing 58 of 81 pitches for strikes.
“He was very impressive,” Hill said. “I think I alluded it to it a couple (starts) ago, he’s been our most consistent pitcher in terms of executing pitches.
“It couldn’t happen to a, it’s a cliche but, a better guy. This kid has worked hard and he’s stayed focused for so long. He’s stayed within himself and kept it simple. He gets outs. He got outs against the best hitting team in the league.”
For much of that dominant run, though, the Isotopes simply could not get him any run support. Leadoff doubles by Tapia in the first and Tom Murphy in the second were squandered. Finally in the third, Tapia doubled again and scored two batters later on Brandon Barnes’ single through the left side.
The game remained tied 1-1 until the sixth, when Mike Tauchman picked an opportune time to hit his first home run of the season, a leadoff shot that landed on the berm above right field.
“A tight game like that, leading off the inning I was trying to get a quality at-bat,” Tauchman said. “I had a chance to have an impact at-bat my last time and I didn’t have the quality at-bat I wanted to have. I was trying to get on base, get something going.”
Tauchman was sprinting past second when the ball landed.
“I knew I hit it well, but it’s pretty deep out there and there wasn’t much wind tonight, so I wanted at the very least to end up on second or third,” he said.
Tauchman had gone 893 at-bats without a home run. Hill pointed out some crazy numbers with that.
“His last home run was April 27, 2015 and today is August 27, 2016, 18 months and his (jersey) number is 18,” Hill said with a laugh. “I’m just saying!”
Albuquerque got some insurance runs in the eighth, including an RBI double by Murphy, an RBI single by pinch hitter Chris Nelson and a sacrifice fly by Tapia.
The Isotopes would need all of them as the Chihuahuas tried to rally in the ninth. Jose Rondon hit a leadoff single, Carlos Asuaje followed with an RBI triple to center and Manuel Margot beat out an infield single to drive in Asuaje. Austin Hedges followed with a two-out RBI single, bringing El Paso within one run. Hector Sanchez hit a drive to left-center but Tapia dove and made a spectacular sliding catch to end the game.
“The ball that he almost caught (Asuaje’s triple) where it looked like he was injured, and then he bounced back,” Hill said. “He was focused on the game and just wanted to make the play. That’s why he made that play. He wanted to make that play. That was pretty incredible the way he made that catch.”
Murphy finished the game 3-for-4 to continue his insane hot streak. Tapia and Jordan Patterson each went 2-for-4.
One spot of bad news was in the eighth when Alex Castellanos was hit by a pitch on the right elbow. He was forced to leave the game in obvious pain. There was no update available on his condition after the game, Hill said.
The Isotopes and Chihuahuas will finish their series, and Albuquerque’s regular-season home schedule, on Sunday at 6:05 p.m.