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Dahlberg’s gem, Kirtley’s knock push Chiefs to Championship

Hear what both players and manager Chris Swauger have to say about the series-clinching win.

Lance Brozdowski

Every Sunday at Dozer Park the Peoria Chiefs wear alternate blue jerseys. The homage to years past veers from traditional the red-and-white uniforms nearly all Cardinals affiliates wear. On August 26, the last Sunday home game of the regular season at Dozer Park, the Chiefs auction off their game-worn, powder-blue jerseys for charity.

When Game 2 of the Midwest League playoff’s second round rolled around Sunday in Peoria, the Chiefs didn’t have their traditional Sunday garb to wear, so they improvised.

Starting pitcher Jake Dahlberg lead the Chiefs onto the field with all-white uniforms with powder-blue hats. The unique look that may have spurred some magic.

The Chiefs lost six-straight games heading into the playoffs and have now rattled off four-straight wins. Dahlberg and first baseman Zach Kirtley—in their powder-blue hats and white jerseys—were key components to the Chiefs 5-0 victory over the Cedar Rapids Kernels (MIN affiliate). A Midwest League championship is now three wins away.

Dahlberg threw 100 pitches over eight innings, striking out a career-high 9 batters and allowing only five baserunners. His outing started off smooth with six swinging strikes in the first two innings. He sat between 86-87 mph with his fastball, while both his changeup and slider sat in the 79- to 82-mph window. A willingness to mix glove-side and arm-side run offspeed pitches his sinking fastball in a small range of velocity is a unique and effective technique for a southpaw.

Dahlberg’s third and fourth innings of work needed only 20 combined pitches, but he seemed to lose the bat-missing stuff he featured out of the gate.

“I came in the dugout and talked to the pitching coach and was like, ‘Man, I’m really just messing up with my changeup, not getting on top of it,’” Dahlberg said. “So we just talked about where my arm slot was... I went back out there and got back on top of that pitch so I could get some more depth to it. I was getting some run and I don’t want run... That’s why I really started getting those swings and misses later in the game.”

The lefty from the University of Illinois-Chicago proceeded to strike out five of the last nine batters he faced before leaving the game after his eight inning of work. Dahlberg threw a lofty 73 percent of his pitches for strikes and worked with a lively pace, contributing to the abbreviated 2-hour, 16-minute game.

“I try not to leave the mound,” Dahlberg said. “I’m trying to catch the ball, get back on there and force early contact. When I’m throwing strikes I don’t want to go anywhere, I want to get back on the mound and force that guy to be ready on my time.”

Chiefs Manager Chris Swauger praised Dahlberg’s outing, noting how reliable Dahlberg has been since his promotion from the New York-Penn League. He also noted the quick pace at which Dahlberg worked was part of a large philosophy.

“We’ve actually discouraged our guys from pacing themselves, it’s kind of how we’ve built our pitching staff,” Swauger said. “In the minor leagues it’s all about development, so it’s more or less like, put guys in the game, let them pitch and see what they can do, maximize their talent.

“With every one of our pitchers, we’ve encouraged them to attack hitters with [their] best stuff and when [they’re] tired or ineffective we’ll come get [them] and put somebody else in, knowing that the guy coming in is going to do the exact same thing: he’s going to try to get as many outs as quickly as possible and win the game.”

Dahlberg’s remerging changeup and up-tempo pace carried the Chiefs to the ninth inning where C.J. Saylor and Patrick Dayton shut the door. Five unanswered runs in the third inning allowed the pressure to lighten come the final outs.

Kirtley sparked the five-run, third-inning rally after striking out on five pitches in his first at-bat against Kernels starter Blayne Enlow. The St. Mary’s College of California product relaxed and extended his hit streak to five games with a 2-RBI single on a 1-0 fastball to score the game’s first runs.

“[Enlow] was throwing pretty well,” Kirtley said. “I had trouble picking up his pitches and I just learned from the first at-bat. He threw a couple balls up-and-in to [the batter before me]... and we saw [Enlow] earlier in the year and he wasn’t throwing that hard. I was just curious to see what was coming at me, he pitched me well in that first at-bat, but he made a mistake in that second at-bat and I had to jump on it.”

Kirtley’s knock led to two consecutive RBI singles on back-to-back pitches from catcher Dennis Ortega and second baseman Nick Dunn. Nolan Gorman’s RBI grounded out one batter later extended the Chiefs lead to 5-0.

“It could only be one pitch, one swing, one at-bat, one play, that just gets things rolling and builds momentum,” Kirtley said. “I think [momentum] is one of the most important things going into the playoffs.”

The Chiefs will play the Bowling Green Hot Rods (TB affiliate) in a best-of-five game championship series starting at Dozer Park Wednesday.

Swauger’s confidence in his team heading into the pinnacle of the Midwest League comes across in person. Only four years removed from professional baseball he’s cultivated a special vibe in the clubhouse mentioned by multiple players through the course of the season. The intangible could be key to beating a team that won 90 games this season, nine more than any other Midwest League team.

“The backbone of our whole team has been our pitching the entire year. I’m confident we’re running out four good starters in this [coming] series,” Swauger said. “A key component to winning baseball is pitching, defense and timely hitting, we’re getting that right now and we have to trust that what we’ve been building over the course of 144 games now will work in every situation.”