The Aviators were certainly wide awake and raring to go for their earliest game of the season Tuesday at Las Vegas Ballpark. Unfortunately, after a highly productive first inning, they hit the snooze button - and paid the price.
With a season-high crowd of 12,111 looking on, Las Vegas raced out to a 6-0 first-inning lead against the Tacoma Rainiers, but the offense went cold thereafter while four pitchers surrendered four home runs. The net result was a 9-7 defeat and an extremely bitter end to a season-long 12-game homestand in which the Aviators (23-17) went just 6-6.
Barely 12 hours after Monday's efficient 4-2 come-from-behind victory over Tacoma (19-21), the Aviators returned to Las Vegas Ballpark for the 16th annual Smokers Strike Out School Day game that started at 10:35 a.m. Despite the early wake-up call, Las Vegas showed no signs of weariness, sending 12 men to the plate and scoring six times in the first inning - much to the delight of thousands of boisterous elementary-school kids.
Jorge Mateo delivered the first big hit, a three-run home run to left field off Tacoma starter Christian Bergman that scored Nick Martini (walk) and Dustin Fowler (single). One out later, Corban Joseph continued the early scoring fest (and his torrid hitting) when his third home run of the season splashed into the pool beyond right-center field.
Two more runs came home on Sheldon Neuse's one-out RBI double that plated Bolt (single) and Martini's two-out single that drove in Neuse and sent Bergman to the showers. Fowler then greeted Rainiers reliever Ryan Garton with his second single of the inning to load the bases, but Garton extinguished the fire when he struck out Mateo.
At that moment, nobody in attendance - not the fans, not the players - would've guessed that a couple of hours would pass before the Aviators crossed home plate again. Yet that's precisely what happened, as Garton and two other Rainiers relievers combined to scatter five hits and two walks over six scoreless innings.
While the Aviators' bats went dormant, Tacoma's woke up, first against Las Vegas starter Jake Buchanan. Catcher Austin Nola got things started with a solo home run in the fourth and an RBI single in the fifth to cut the Aviators' lead to 6-2. Then with no outs in the sixth, the Rainiers completed their comeback thanks to a pair of two-run homers by Connor Kopach (off Buchanan) and Braden Bishop (off reliever Miguel Romero).
When Bishop cleared the center-field wall for a second time with two outs in the eighth - this time off right-hander B.J. Wendelken, who was making his Las Vegas debut - Tacoma had its first lead of the day.
That lead wouldn't last long, though, as the Aviators' scoring drought finally ended in the bottom of the eighth thanks to Seth Brown's one-out RBI single. But after Joseph lined out and Bolt walked, the Aviators once again left the bases loaded when Neuse grounded out to first.
Tacoma quickly broke the tie in the ninth, when Ryan Court followed a pair of two-out walks with his team's 14th hit, a two-run double off Las Vegas' Ben Bracewell (0-2).
Although Tyler Ramirez reached first base on a leadoff walk to start the bottom of the ninth, he would go no further, as Rainiers right-hander Matt Festa retired the next three batters in order to hand the Aviators - who left 13 runners on base, went 4-for-17 with runners in scoring position and struck out 14 times - one of their most gut-wrenching defeats of the season.
Game Notes: Tuesday's season-high crowd marked the 20th sellout in the first 24 games at Las Vegas Ballpark. … Fowler went 3-for-5, adding a single in the eighth to his pair of first-inning hits. He's 5-for-9 over his last two games … Like Fowler, Joseph went 3-for-5 on Tuesday. The infielder finished the homestand going 23-for-46 to raise his batting average from .300 to .387. … Mateo's first-inning home run came one day after his 10-game hitting streak was snapped. However, he struck out in his final four at-bats. Still, the fleet-footed shortstop now has at least one hit in 32 of the 36 games he's played. … Buchanan was charged with five runs on 11 hits and two walks over five innings. He struck out four.
On Deck: With Wednesday's scheduled off day, the Aviators will end a stretch of playing 21 games in 21 days. The team returns to action Thursday when it kicks off a five-game series in Salt Lake. Each game is scheduled for 5:35 p.m., except for Sunday's matinee at 12:05 p.m. … Paul Blackburn (4-1, 4.37 ERA) is slated to start Thursday's series-opener against Bees lefty Patrick Sandoval (0-0, 4.70). The rest of the pitching matchups are as follows (Aviators pitchers listed first): Friday, Tyler Alexander (1-2, 6.61) vs. Jose Suarez (1-0, 0.90); Saturday, Tanner Anderson (3-3, 6.11) vs. Dillon Peters (1-0, 5.04); Sunday, Parker Dunshee (0-0, 3.00) vs. Nick Tropeano (0-1, 8.83); Monday, Buchanan vs. Jaime Barria (1-0, 6.75).
On the Road Home: Tuesday's homestand finale against Tacoma also ended a stretch in which Las Vegas played 17 of 21 games at home. After the five-game series in Salt Lake, the Aviators return to Las Vegas Ballpark for a quick four-game series against the Albuquerque Dukes from May 21-24.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.