All any baseball team wants coming down the stretch of a long season is to be in control of its own destiny. And with 13 games remaining in their inaugural season, the Aviators now have that control.
Overcoming a slow start in a big way, Las Vegas scored in each of its final five at-bats Tuesday en route to a 10-4 victory over the Reno Aces before a crowd of 8,043 at Las Vegas Ballpark. The win, coupled with El Paso's 9-4 home loss to Fresno, broke a tie atop the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division, with the Aviators (75-52) now sitting in the driver's seat.
Playing as the Reyes de Plata for the final time at home this season, Las Vegas secured its fourth consecutive victory thanks to home runs from Sheldon Neuse, Mark Payton and Nick Martini, as well as a stellar pitching performance from starter Jesús Luzardo.
While the final score might suggest the Reyes de Plata were in complete control the entire way, that was actually far from the case. In fact, it was Reno starting pitcher Jon Duplantier who controlled things early on. Despite entering the game with an 0-2 record and a beefy 6.39 ERA, the right hander retired all nine Las Vegas hitters he faced through three innings. Along the way, Duplantier - who returned to the Aces on Saturday after spending two days with the Arizona Diamondbacks - struck out five and threw 27 of 38 pitches for strikes.
However, the 38th pitch, which Reyes de Plata shortstop Jorge Mateo hit for a routine flyout to end the third inning, ended up being Duplantier's last. Perhaps because of a pitch count, Reno manager Chris Cron lifted Duplantier and replaced him with right-hander Connor Grey in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Needless to say, the skipper's move backfired - and quickly.
Not only did the first five batters in the Reyes de Plata lineup greet Grey with solid base hits - on just 15 pitches - but all five came around to score. Martini and Dustin Fowler started the hit parade with consecutive singles, and Neuse brought them both home with a booming three-run home run, his 25th of the season, that soared over the batter's eye in center field.
Seth Brown and Franklin Barreto immediately followed with singles before Grey (0-1) finally retired his first batter, striking out Mark Payton. But Jonah Heim belted Grey's next pitch to the right-field fence for a double that scored Brown. Barreto then trotted home when Dustin Garneau - a catcher who joined Las Vegas earlier in the day - followed with a sacrifice fly to that gave the Reyes de Plata a 5-1 lead.
Las Vegas tacked on single runs in the fifth and sixth on two-out RBI singles by Barreto and Fowler, respectively, then blew the game open on Payton's two-run homer in the seventh and Martini's solo shot in the eighth.
While the Reyes de Plata's bats woke up after Duplantier departed, the Aces' bats remained mostly in snooze mode against Luzardo and four relievers. Making his second start since returning from a five-week stint on the injured list, Luzardo was terrific, yielding just a single run on three hits and two walks while striking out five in 4 2/3 innings. On a strict 80-pitch limit, the 21-year-old top prospect of the Oakland A's threw 78 pitches, including 50 for strikes.
After Luzardo was pulled with two outs in the fifth, Kyle Lobstein (6-2) came on and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just two baserunners on an error and an intentional walk. Although the Aces (59-68) did scratch across three runs against Las Vegas relievers Wei-Chung Wang and Jharel Cotton in the seventh and eighth innings, Kyle Finnegan came out of the bullpen in the ninth and slammed the door shut, needing just 11 pitches to retire the side in order.
With that, Las Vegas clinched a winning homestand, improved to 9-2 as the Reyes de Plata this season (including 8-1 at home) and - for one day, anyway - put El Paso in the rearview mirror.
GAME NOTES: Tuesday's crowd pushed the season-long attendance at Las Vegas Ballpark over the 600,000 mark. Through 65 games, 600,987 fans have passed through the turnstiles, for a per-game average of 9,246. Both figures lead all of Minor League Baseball … The first seven hitters in the Reyes de Plata lineup (Martini, Fowler, Neuse, Brown, Barreto, Payton and Heim) had all 11 of the team's hits, including all three homers and a double, to go along with nine runs and nine RBI. … Payton's home run was his 27th of the season, and just like Neuse's dinger, the ball easily cleared the batter's eye in center field. … With his two singles, Barreto has hit safely in five straight games and seven of his last eight. During that stretch, he's 12-for-31 (.387) with four homers and nine RBI. … Neuse stretched his hitting streak to seven games, during which he's 9-for-25 (.360) with three homers, five runs and nine RBI. … Over his last four relief appearances, Lobstein has surrendered just one hit and three walks over four scoreless innings. … Las Vegas improved to 10-5 against Reno this season heading into Wednesday's final meeting between the instate rivals. … The Aviators are now 46-19 on games played Monday through Thursday, including 12-4 on Tuesdays.
TRANSACTION ACTION: Another day, another flurry of roster moves involving the Aviators. As expected, the A's on Tuesday purchased the contract of southpaw relief pitcher A.J. Puk, who took the roster spot that had been occupied by Wang, who was optioned to Las Vegas on Monday and officially activated Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Garneau - who also was optioned to the Aviators on Monday and activated Tuesday -took the roster spot of fellow catcher Cameron Rupp, who was placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a strained left calf.
In another move, the A's released right-handed pitcher Marco Estrada, who was in Las Vegas on a rehab assignment and started one game for the Aviators, tossing three innings on Saturday.
Finally, Aviators catcher Sean Murphy, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since August 1, is expected to be activated prior to Wednesday's series finale against against Reno.
ON DECK: The Aviators complete their seven-game homestand with Wednesday's 7:05 p.m. game against the Aces at Las Vegas Ballpark. Las Vegas ace Paul Blackburn (10-3, 4.20 ERA) will try for his team-leading 11th victory when he opposes fellow right-hander Matt Koch (4-8, 7.12).
The Aviators will then hit the road for the final time in the regular season, traveling to Tacoma on Thursday to begin a four-game series that runs through Sunday, followed by a four-game set in Albuquerque (August 26-29). The Aviators will return to Las Vegas Ballpark and conclude the regular season with a four-game series versus Tacoma from August 30-September 2.
To this point, Las Vegas has split its eight meetings with Tacoma and is 7-5 against Albuquerque.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.