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Aviators’ pitchers come up big in 6-3 victory over Reno in series-opener

Brian Howard and three relievers shut down Aces’ potent offense in opener of six-game series
Aviators starting pitcher Brian Howard did his best Houdini impression Thursday night at Las Vegas Ballpark, allowing seven hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings against the Reno Aces while yielding only two runs. Howard picked up the victory as Las Vegas upended the Aces 6-3. (Steve Spatafore | Las Vegas Aviators)
September 10, 2021

As recently as six weeks ago, the notion that the Aviators’ pitching staff would be responsible for guiding the team to a much-needed late-season victory would’ve been as farfetched as aliens landing in center field at Las Vegas Ballpark … during a midsummer snowstorm. That’s how much both the Aviators’

As recently as six weeks ago, the notion that the Aviators’ pitching staff would be responsible for guiding the team to a much-needed late-season victory would’ve been as farfetched as aliens landing in center field at Las Vegas Ballpark … during a midsummer snowstorm.

That’s how much both the Aviators’ starters and bullpen struggled to record outs on a consistent basis through the season’s first two months, during which time Las Vegas' offense kept the squad hovering around .500.

Boy, how times have changed.

After surrendering just 43 runs during a 12-game road swing to Oklahoma City and Sugar Land (Texas), the Aviators’ pitching staff returned home Thursday and resumed its dominating ways in a 6-3 victory over instate rival Reno before a crowd of 7,060 at Las Vegas Ballpark.

With the win, Las Vegas (59-50) halted a three-game losing skid, improved to 16-6 in its last 22 games overall, 9-1 in its last 10 home games and pulled to within three games of second-place Reno (61-46) in the Western Division of Triple-A West. Unfortunately for Las Vegas, first-place Tacoma cruised to a 10-4 home victory over Salt Lake, keeping the Aviators six games out of first place.

The sliver lining? Las Vegas would be staring at a seven-game deficit in the standings if not for the performances of starting pitcher Brian Howard and relievers James Naile, Grant Holmes and Domingo Acevedo—not to mention the Aces’ defense.

Starting with the latter, Reno committed a whopping five errors that helped the Aviators open a 5-1 lead through four innings. Howard did his part to protect that lead, allowing just one run in his first four innings of work. However, after Howard surrendered a second run in the fifth and got into trouble in the sixth, Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan made the tough call to go to his bullpen.

It proved to be the right call.

Naile took over for Howard, worked out of a sixth-inning jam and ended up throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Holmes followed Naile and overcame an eighth-inning defensive error to keep the Aces at bay heading into the ninth inning. However, after Holmes let three of Reno’s first four hitters reach base to start the top of the ninth, Riordan returned to the mound and summoned closer Domingo Acevedo.

The hard-throwing right-hander needed just 10 pitches to strike out the final two batters, lock up his eighth save of the season and keep alive the Aviators’ hopes for a second straight division title.

GAME NOTES: The Aviators produced just six hits, half of which came from third baseman Vimael Machín, who went 3-for-4. … Shortstop Pete Kozma kicked off the scoring with a first-inning home run, which was just his fourth of the season. Thanks to that blast, Kozma now owns a six-game hitting streak. The veteran infielder has six hitting streaks of five games or more this season. … Las Vegas pitchers have surrendered three runs or fewer in five straight games and seven of the last eight. … The first five batters in the Aviators’ lineup — Mickey McDonald, Kozma, Carlos Pèrez, Francisco Peña and Machín — combined to go 6-for-15 with two runs and four RBI. … Howard, who had a 7.25 ERA in five August starts, improved to 5-4 on the season. The 6-foot-9 right-hander surrendered seven hits and three walks while striking out four in his 5 2/3 innings. He threw 54 of 91 pitches for strikes. ... Las Vegas (two) and Reno (five) combined for seven errors. ... The Aces, who have lost five in a row, finished with 11 hits (nine singles, two doubles).

A MILESTONE NIGHT: Thursday night’s crowd was historical in multiple respects, as the Aviators have now welcomed more than 1 million fans (1,001,127) to Las Vegas Ballpark since it opened in 2019. Additionally, the franchise on Thursday eclipsed the 13 million mark in all-time attendance (13,002,138 fans in 38 seasons).

ON DECK: The Aviators and Aces continue their six-game series at 7:05 p.m. Friday, with right-hander Parker Dunshee (1-3, 5.59) scheduled to start for Las Vegas on Fireworks Night. Reno is undecided on a starting pitcher.

Catch every Aviators game throughout the season on Raider Nation Radio 920-AM, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @AviatorsLV. Follow Aviators beat writer Matt Jacob on Twitter @MattRJacob.