With temperatures hovering near 110 degrees on an unseasonably scorching first day of September, the Aviators' pitching staff followed pregame stretching exercises by taking a dip in the Las Vegas Ballpark swimming pool in center field. Some five hours later, those same pitchers sprinted to the pool again, only this time they were joined by the rest of their teammates and coaches.
The reason? To rinse off after dousing each other with champagne and beer during a postgame clubhouse celebration that errupted after the Aviators defeated the Tacoma Rainiers to snap a three-game losing skid and clinch a playoff berth.
Needing a victory over the Rainiers and a loss by the El Paso Chihuahuas in Sacramento on Sunday to wrap up the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division, the Aviators got both: Hours after Sacramento blanked El Paso 5-0, Las Vegas scored six runs in the eighth inning to pull away from Tacoma and prevail 8-1 before a sellout crowd of 10,774.
Thanks to those results, the Aviators (82-57) get to continue their remarkable inaugural season against Sacramento in a best-of-5 first-round playoff series. The River Cats, who won the Pacific Northern Division crown, will host the first two games Wednesday and Thursday before the series shifts to Las Vegas Ballpark on Friday for Game 3. If necessary, Games 4 and 5 also will be played in Las Vegas.
"I'm just so proud of these guys," said manager Fran Riordan, who guided the Las Vegas franchise to its 11th playoff berth and first since 2014. "Our backs were against the wall, we were neck-and-neck with El Paso [down the stretch], but I've used the word resilient all year, and these guys showed their resiliency at the most important time. Everybody in that room had a hand in getting us to where we are today. It's just a really exciting night for us."
Indeed, in true team fashion, the Aviators got contributions from everyone who played in the division-clincher. And the most notable of those contributions came from several players who weren't even on the team as recently as a week ago. One day after getting promoted to Las Vegas from Double-A Midland (Texas) to fill out a roster depleted after several Aviators were called up to the parent Oakland A's, starting pitcher James Kaprielian and second baseman Mikey White came up huge in their debuts. So did first baseman Alfonso Rivas, who joined the Aviators from Class-A Stockton (California) on August 26.
While White and Rivas delivered momentum-swinging home runs, Kaprielian pitched a gem, yielding just one run in four innings.
"You can't say enough about those young guys," Riordan said. "For them to come up and do what they did in such big spots says a lot about the future of the Oakland A's organization."
After allowing a first-inning run, Kaprielian settled down and ended up scattering six hits in his four innings of work. Most impressively, the 6-foot-3 right-hander struck out six (including three in the first) and didn't issue a walk. Meanwhile, after seven consecutive Aviators struck out against Rainiers starter Sean Nolin - whose first 10 recorded outs were strikeouts - White finally got his team's first hit: With one out in the third, he ambushed Nolin's first pitch, belting a game-tying solo homer into Tacoma's bullpen in right-center field.
After designated hitter Cameron Rupp broke the tie an inning later with his own first-pitch solo homer off Nolin - this one landing in the pool - Las Vegas proceeded to nurse its 2-1 lead for the next three-plus innings. During that stretch, the Aviators not only dodged multiple Tacoma comeback attempts, but they squandered several chances to blow the game open.
But that changed in the bottom of the eighth inning. And it all started with one of the newcomers.
After Rupp led off with a walk and was replaced by pinch-runner Trace Loehr, Rivas blasted a 3-2 pitch from Rainiers reliever Ryan Ellington over the left-center field wall for his first career Triple-A homer. Loehr - who was teammates with Rivas in Stockton for most of this season - greeted Rivas at home plate as Las Vegas stretched its lead to 4-1.
Rivas' shot ignited a lengthy rally for the Aviators, who plated four more runs in the inning on RBI singles by Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler, a sacrifice fly by Eric Campbell, and another run-scoring single, this one by Loehr. By the time Rivas grounded out to end the inning, the Aviators had sent 11 men to the plate.
Suddenly armed with a seven-run lead, Riordan handed the game over to veteran pitcher Matt Harvey, another recent addition to the Aviators' roster who once pitched for the Las Vegas 51s. Harvey quickly recorded the first two outs in the ninth, then surrendered a single and a walk, before getting Tacoma's Jaycob Brugman to hit a pop up to short center field. With his back to home plate, Mateo sprinted from his shortstop position and made a spectacular sliding, over-the-shoulder catch that ended the game and set off the first of what would be several celebrations.
"We limped a little bit to the end, but it's all worth it," said Campbell, the veteran infielder and one of the team's leaders who returned to the lineup Sunday after a two-week stint on the injured list. "It's well-deserved for everybody - everybody earned it. I'm happy for our fans and for Don [Logan, Aviators president and COO] and the front office here, as they also deserve it after all the work they put in this season."
Harvey capped an outstanding night of pitching for Las Vegas. In addition to Kaprielian's stellar effort, right-handers Kyle Finnegan, Ben Bracewell and Harvey combined to allow just two hits and five walks while striking out seven over the final five innings, with Finnegan (3-1) picking up the victory.
"We needed our pitching to come through, and it came through in a big way tonight," Riordan said. "Kap gave us a great start - a really solid four innings. Then Finnegan comes in and just does a fantastic job. Then we go to Bracewell, who was absolutely light's out like he has been in crunch time for us this season. And then Harvey closing it out."
Because of that pitching performance - not to mention some much-needed clutch hitting from some unlikely sources - the Aviators picked up just their second victory in their last seven games. More importantly, thanks to some additional help from the team they'll face in their initial postseason series, they got to party into the night without having to worry about needing to win Monday's regular-season finale.
Instead, the players and coaches can show up for the 12:05 p.m. matinee and start preparing for the River Cats, who won the Pacific Northern Division with a 72-67 record - but went just 5-11 against Las Vegas this season.
"We've had a lot of great battles against Sacramento this year," said Riordan, who led Midland to the Texas League championship in 2017. "They're a really good ballclub, and we're going to have to bring our A-game to beat them. We're just going to go out, bust it during the series and let the chips fall where they may. But the important thing was getting in, and we did that tonight."
And despite all of the moves that have reshaped the roster on the fly over the past month, at least one Aviators player believes the sky's the limit.
"We still have a team that's capable of winning the whole thing," Campbell said. "And that's what we're going to try to do."
GAME NOTES: Las Vegas had trailed El Paso by as many as four games as recently as June 25, but has been in first place (either tied or all alone) since August 17. … The newcomer trio of Rivas, White and Loehr combined to go 5-for-10 with two home runs, four runs and four RBI. Rivas has now hit safely in all seven games he's played since arriving from Stockton, and overall, he's batting .393 (11-for-28). … Nolin (11), Kaprielian (6), Finnegan (5) and Tacoma reliever Gercon Bautista (3) combined for 22 strikeouts through six innings. All four pitchers struck out the side at least once, with Nolin doing so in each of his first three innings. … The Aviators and Rainiers combined to go 4-for-18 with runners in scoring position while leaving 22 runners on base. … Las Vegas outfielder Mark Payton had a pair of singles and now has multiple hits in seven straight games. During this stretch, Payton is 14-for-29 (.483). … Fowler's ninth-inning RBI single extended his hitting streak to five, during which he's 6-for-20. … With a victory Monday, the Aviators would match the 1983 Las Vegas Stars with 83 victories, second most in franchise history. The record of 85 wins is held by the 2002 Las Vegas 51s.
TRANSACTION ACTION: As expected, the Oakland A's on Sunday added three Aviators players on the first day Major League Baseball rosters were eligible to expand from 25 to 40. Oakland purchased the contract of catcher Sean Murphy and recalled infielder/outfielder Franklin Barreto and right-handed pitcher Paul Blackburn. To make room on the 40-man roster for Murphy, the A's released infielder Corban Joseph.
Joseph spent the entire season in Las Vegas, posting a team-best .372 batting average before being promoted to Oakland on August 14. If Joseph isn't claimed on waivers, his rights would revert to the A's, and he would be assigned to Las Vegas be eligible to play in the PCL playoffs.
ATTENDANCE UPDATE: The Aviators have drawn more than 10,000 fans in each of the first three games of their series against Tacoma. Heading into Monday's regular-season finale, Las Vegas Ballpark has hosted a total of 641,423 fans for an average of 9,296 per game, with both figures leading all of Minor League Baseball. Also, 45 of the team's 69 home games have been sellouts, with 23 crowds in excess of 10,000.
Prior to this season, the franchise's single-season attendance record was 387,815, established in 1992.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.