Nelson homer lifts Dragons, ends losing streak

Dayton's Daniel Vellojin signals safe after he was called out on a tag by Fort Wayne catcher Brandon Valenzuela during Friday night's game against Fort Wayne. Vellojin was trying to score from second on Austin Hendrick's bases loaded single in the third inning. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

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Dayton's Daniel Vellojin signals safe after he was called out on a tag by Fort Wayne catcher Brandon Valenzuela during Friday night's game against Fort Wayne. Vellojin was trying to score from second on Austin Hendrick's bases loaded single in the third inning. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

The Dayton Dragons lineup that began life after the All-Star Break on Friday night bears little resemblance to the one that kept them in first place most of the first half of the Midwest League season.

Gone are Elly De La Cruz, Alex McGarry, Allan Cerda, Nick Quintana and with them 50 of the team’s 104 homers and almost a third of the RBIs.

Players recently up from Low-A Daytona – Austin Hendrick, Ruben Ibarra, Tyler Callihan – and holdovers like catcher Mat Nelson and shortstop Jose Torres need to become clutch and productive hitters. That’s the only way the Dragons can break out of their recent losing ways that cost them the first-half division title and caused a slow start to the second half.

Friday was a good start.

Nelson hit a tie-breaking two-run homer in the eighth inning to lift the Dragons to a 5-3 victory over Fort Wayne and break a seven-game losing streak.

Nelson also tripled and scored on a single by Torres in the fourth for a 3-0 lead. Torres, who hit well early in the season, entered the game batting .179 with runners in scoring position. Hendrick singled in the Dragons’ second run with the bases loaded in the third and is 5 for 38 with runners in scoring position.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for these guys,” Dragons manager Bryan LaHair said. “There’s a lot of talent on the field to work with. It’s just a matter of them adjusting to this level.”

Nelson enjoyed one of his biggest nights of the season, and he didn’t expect it. His girlfriend Emma was at the game, and the three other times she had been able to attend he didn’t hit much. This time she brought her family. Some of Nelson’s family from Massachusetts also came.

“She tells me she’s bad luck,” Nelson said. “Every time she comes it hasn’t been anything like tonight or not even one hit like tonight. She’s like, ‘Really? My parents come in and you have to do this.’”

Nelson, who led the nation in homers in 2021 at Florida State with 23, hit his sixth homer on a hanging slider from Luis Madrazo. Nelson is hitting .215.

“The heat map said everything that he threw was kind of middle in, and then he threw me a first pitch slider on the outer half,” Nelson said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to stick to the zone that I know.’ And luckily the next pitch was in and I reacted to it.”

More reactions like that will help the Dragons produce more runs in key situations. They entered the game batting .216 with runners in scoring position while their opponents were batting .253.

The Dragons finished second in the first half at 39-27 with the second-best first-half winning percentage in franchise history of .591. They are 6-14 in the second half and 45-41 overall.

Strong pitching: Starter Christian Roa, the Reds’ No. 27 prospect, pitched four scoreless innings, allowed two hits and struck out six.

Donovan Benoit, Vin Timpanelli and Jake Gilbert (5-1) finished. Timpanelli was put in a tough spot when he had to warm up quickly to start the seventh. Braxton Roxby was going to start the inning but wasn’t listed on the lineup card. Timpanelli allowed three runs, two of them earned, and had tough luck because of an error and broken-bat bloop single. Gilbert pitched the final 2 1/3 innings.

AA update: De La Cruz had a difficult debut in Chattanooga with an 0-for-5 night and three strikeouts. McGarry homered and leads all Reds minor-leaguers with 22, including 11 with the Dragons.

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