By John Cummings
Normally, leadoff hitters are the ignition of the offense.
Get on base, cause some problems and get the offense started.
Sunday at Fifth-Third Field, Dayton Dragons’ leadoff Juan Perez was the whole engine.
Perez belted two home runs and drove in four runs as the Dragons set the stage to record their first series sweep of the season with a 5-4 win over Fort Wayne.
“He put us on his back today,” Dragons manager Delino DeShields said after his squad improved to 21-26 in the second half. “That was a good team win for us today. We are playing nine innings now and that is the difference. Early in the year, we probably wouldn’t have won this game.”
After 2011 Reds overall top draft pick Robert Stephenson struck out the Tincaps in order in the top of the first, Perez struck first for the home team, lining the second pitch he saw from Eric Cabrera over the rightfield fence for a 1-0 lead.
Fort Wayne, however, got to Stephenson in the third and fourth innings to take a 4-1 lead. Stephenson, who entered allowing just three runs in his first 14 innings with Dayton, struggled at times, walking three and hitting one to go along with three hits.
“He’s going to have days like that,” DeShields said. “We call it struggling, but it was just one of those days. Walks got him today. If he doesn’t walk guys, he is going to be hard to beat.”
In one swing, Perez got Stephenson off the hook of his first professional loss.
After Sean Buckley and Juan Silva walked to begin the inning, Perez lined a shot just inside the foul pole in right for a two-out home run to tie the game at 4-4 in the fifth inning.
“I was just trying to put a good swing on the ball,” Perez said. “I am getting good pitches to hit and I am getting into a hitter’s count, that’s the big thing.”
Dayton broke the tie in the sixth when Joe Terry led off with a double and scored on a one-out double by Buckley. Dragons pitchers — with the help of a pickoff and a caught stealing — retired Fort Wayne in order the last three innings with Carlos Contreras working a perfect ninth for his 16th save.
“Our confidence is at an all-time high right now,” Perez said. “We were like this in Billings (last year) where, even if we were down three runs, we were confident we were going to win the game. It took us a little longer than last year to get there, but we are there now.”
The Dragons will go for their first three-game series sweep of the season at 7 tonight in the finale against Fort Wayne. Dayton, riding a season high four-game winning streak, also looks to continue Fort Wayne’s season high six-game losing streak.
“They’re finding a way,” DeShields said. “They are not getting down when we are down. They are still fighting and that is a good sign. They are growing up a little bit.”