That was never more evident than Saturday night.
With the Crushers treating their last five regular-season games as must-wins, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound left-hander came through with one of the best pitching performances in the franchise’s five-year history in a 2-0 win.
Middendorf baffled the Frontier Greys all night, firing a one-hit shutout — the Crushers’ second one-hitter of the season — in front of 1,917 fans at All Pro Freight Stadium.
“I’d like to get a little more of a cushion besides two runs, but yes, it was a great game,” Crushers manager Jeff Isom said. “Obviously, what Middendorf did right there was spectacular.
“His only hit was a swinging bunt (in the top of the sixth), but he pitched excellent. “He got ahead of the hitters all night and used his slider-changeup combination to perfection for this outstanding performance.”
The Crushers (53-39) are tied for first place in the Frontier League’s East Division following Traverse City’s 4-1 10-inning loss to Joliet. Their magic number to clinch their third playoff berth — and first since 2011 — is three with four games remaining.
“Every game is a magic number for us,” Isom said. “They’re all big games at this point. We hold our own destiny in our hands.
These guys know the situation. They go out there and they’re playing these like playoff games. It would be nice to keep winning and be able to relax a little bit down the stretch. But this is fun, and it will be more fun if we can get into the postseason.”
Middendorf is tied for the league lead with three shutouts. He threw a five-hitter against River City on July 25 and a four-hitter Aug. 1 against Washington. All three shutouts have been at home.
The only hit for the Greys came with one out in the sixth, when leadoff hitter Alonzo Ramirez bunted to the right of the mound. Middendorf’s throw was a bit high and Ramirez just beat it.
It was originally ruled a hit, and after some discussion between the official scorer and Isom after the game, the ruling stood.
Middendorf felt it was the right call, but was understandably miffed at the Greys.
“I wasn’t very happy,” he said. “I thought it was a (bleep) way to get a hit. Honestly, I could have made the play. I bobbled it a bit in my glove and I probably should have had him by a hair earlier. But I’m not happy that’s what spoiled a no-hitter.
“I’m happy I pitched a complete game, stay in control and get this win during this playoff push. Every game’s a big game, and I was happy I was able to pitch this way when every win counts.”
Middendorf walked two and struck out six, throwing 118 pitches — 76 for strikes. He retired 11 consecutive hitters to end the game.
“I stick to my daily routine and I don’t really look at myself as the ace or horse of this staff because everyone’s been pitching really well lately,” Middendorf said. “I give it to our defenders for backing me up. Today was crucial, and I think they fed off me for those two runs that we got.
“I’m not going to change how I approach the next game after tonight. As a starting pitcher, if you have a bad game, you have to forget about it and move on. Being experienced and realizing that has helped me this year with the complete games.”
Neither Middendorf (12-7) nor Greys pitcher Devon Pearson (1-3) allowed a hit for the first two innings before Craig Hertler lined a one-out single to center in the third. It stayed that way until the fifth, when Hertler came up huge again.
With one out, Hertler drilled a 1-2 pitch to the gap in center for a triple. After Seth Granger drew a walk, Hertler scored on Daniel Bowman’s sacrifice fly to right, giving the Crushers a 1-0 lead.
“Hertler’s been coming through in key situations at key times, and that was obviously a key situation, getting on third with less than two outs,” Isom said. “Granger followed that with a great at-bat to draw the walk and Bowman gets him in. Outstanding job there by all of those guys.”
The Crushers added an insurance run in the eighth off their former teammate and last season’s All-Star closer, Jonathan Kountis. Bowman drew a walk and Russell Moldenhauer followed with an RBI double to left-center.
Middendorf coaxed 15 groundball outs, seven of which went to shortstop Juan Sanchez.
“The slider was working well,” Middendorf said. “It was just one of those games where if the inside fastball is working, I can dictate the game. I was able to put whatever speed I wanted on it and I could throw it for a first-pitch strike and behind the count as well.
“Give it to our catcher, David Roney, who called a great game. After having (Emmanuel) Quiles as my catcher all season, and having Roney come in and have to adjust how I like to pitch, he did a hell of a job.”
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.