NORMAL — The Frontier League West Division race couldn't get much tighter.
And while Normal's recent eight-game winning streak established it as the frontrunner, it is the CornBelters current swoon that has tightened matters considerably.
Skyler Ewing's eigth-inning two-run home run snapped a tie and handed Florence a 5-4 win as Normal dropped its fifth consecutive game.
The Belters still hold a razor-thin margin atop the West, leading River City by one-half game, Southern Illinois by one and Florence and Evansville each by one and a half.
Normal suffered another loss in the third inning when starting pitcher Jack Landwehr was forced to leave after suffering an injury. Landwehr was covering first base on a potential double play grounder when he went down.
After attempting one warmup pitch, the former Illinois State pitcher exited.
Anthony Herrera took over on the mound and gave up a run-scoring single to Caleb Lopes.
Normal tied it in the bottom of the third when Cody Erickson reached on a two-base throwing error, took third on Justin Fletcher's single and came home as Michael Baca bounced into a double play.
The Belters grabbed a 2-1 lead in the fourth on a leadoff home run from Santiago Chirino to right field, his fourth of the season.
That edge swelled to 3-1 two frames later. Derrick Loveless blasted a solo homer (his 11th) to right-center field that was estimated at a Corn Crib all-time record 451 feet.
Florence moved into a 3-3 tie in the seventh against Belters reliever Thomas Nicoll. Austin Wobrock's two-run single down the third-base line drove home Taylor Bryant and John Price Jr.
Ewing's decisive shot came against Normal's Jonathan De Marte.
The Belters scored once and pushed the tying run to third in the ninth.
Andrew Godbold tripled into the right-field corner and with one out Chris Iriart was hit by a pitch. A two-out grounder off the bat of Fletcher was tossed wide of second base by third baseman Bryant attempting a game-ending force out.
Yet the tying hit eluded the Belters as Johnathan Tripp retired Baca on a foul out to notch his 13th save.
Tyler Gibson (4-4) worked the first 7⅓ innings for the Freedom victory.
Starters falter: Normal's recent woes can be traced to the struggles of its starting rotation.
"Our starting pitching was feeble, to be kind about it," Belters manager Billy Horn said of a three-game sweep at the hands of River City last weekend. "We can't expect to score 10 runs every game."
Over the nine games prior to Tuesday's contest, Belters starters had coughed up 40 runs in 42⅓ innings for an alarming 8.50 ERA.
"It puts too much pressure on our offense," said Horn. "We just need better starting pitching."