No team in Triple-A baseball got off to a hotter start to the 2019 season than the Las Vegas Aviators, who were 15-4 through their first 19 games. So it's not like manager Fran Riordan's ballclub didn't know what winning felt like.
That said, after a rough five-game series at home against El Paso last week, no team needed to once again taste the fruits of victory more than the Aviators. Fortunately, they did just that during a brief road trip to Reno, splitting a four-game series against the rival Aces. Las Vegas capped the series with Thursday's 6-3 victory, racing out to a 6-0 lead through five innings and getting solid pitching from starter Tanner Anderson (2-2) and two relievers.
While the Aviators had several hitting stars during the four-game set - including first baseman Seth Brown (7-for-17, 2 triples, 1 HR, 3 runs, 3 RBI for the series) and catcher Beau Taylor (4-for-5, 2 doubles, 2 runs, 1 RBI on Thursday) - it was the pitching staff that carried the load up north. After surrendering 44 runs (including 21 home runs) in the five losses to El Paso, Las Vegas pitchers gave up just nine runs in four games against the Aces.
In addition to Anderson's stellar start Thursday in which he yielded just two runs in six innings, Paul Blackburn (6 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks, 4 strikeouts) pitched a gem in Monday's series opener, while Daniel Mengden (6 innings, 3 hits, 2 runs, 3 walks, 5 strikeouts) recorded a quality start in Wednesday's 2-0 loss. Also, closer Brian Schlitter allowed just two hits while striking out three in 2 2/3 innings to pick up saves in the Aviators' two victories (giving the right-hander five saves for the season).
Following the series split in Reno, the Aviators' players and coaches now get to enjoy the comforts of home for the next dozen days and nights, thanks to a season-long 12-game homestand that kicks off at 7:05 tonight against the Fresno Grizzlies. The Aviators have been a bit inconsistent so far during their inaugural season at Las Vegas Ballpark, going 6-1 in their first homestand before getting swept by El Paso in last week's five-game series.
However, one thing that hasn't been inconsistent at Las Vegas Ballpark has been the crowds. Southern Nevada baseball fans have packed the new stadium to the tune of 12 consecutive sellouts to start the season. In all, 118,362 fans have passed through the turnstiles for an average attendance of 9,864 per game.
Nobody has been more impressed by the nightly turnout than Riordan.
"It's amazing, just a tremendous amount of support and excitement from the local community," says the Aviators' first-year manager. "They're engaged, and they're good baseball fans - you can tell just from the crowd reaction when something goes well. It's been a lot of fun, a second-to-none atmosphere in minor-league baseball."
While it's the job of Triple-A players to go out and play ball regardless of how many people are in the stands, Riordan says he believes the sellout crowds at Las Vegas Ballpark have given his squad an added boost.
"I'll tell you this: You know when you're playing in front of a big crowd, and you know when you're playing in front of crickets," he says. "When you've got 10,000 eyes on you, people get excited about that. It's human nature, and these guys are competing at a very, very high level. So it does give you a little bit of a pick-me-up when you look up there and see a packed house."
ON DECK: The Grizzlies become the first opponent to make a return visit to Las Vegas Ballpark, this time for a four-game series to jump-start the homestand. Through eight meetings this season, the Aviators are 5-3 against Fresno, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. The Grizzlies (12-15, 2nd place in the PCL Northern Division) arrive in Las Vegas fresh off Thursday's 2-0 home victory over El Paso, which snapped a season-long seven-game losing skid.
Following the four-game set with Fresno, the Aviators will host the Salt Lake Bees (top affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels) from May 7-10, followed by the Tacoma Rainers (top affiliate of the Seattle Mariners) from May 11-14. All games are at 7:05 p.m. except for May 5 (12:05 p.m.), May 12 (12:05 p.m.) and the homestand closer on May 14 (10:35 a.m.)
JACKSON READY FOR ACTION: Veteran major league pitcher Edwin Jackson, who signed a minor-league contract with the Oakland A's on April 12 after finishing the 2018 season with the club, is set to make his 2019 debut tonight when takes the mound for the Aviators. Jackson's last minor-league stop before making the big leagues was actually in Las Vegas, as he pitched for the 51s from 2004-05. The right-hander has since gone on to play for a record-tying 13 different big-league clubs, including Oakland, for whom Jackson went 6-3 with a 3.33 ERA in 17 starts last year.
Tonight, Jackson will oppose Fresno right-hander Scott Copeland (1-1, 7.48 ERA). Pitching matchups for the rest of the series are as follows: Saturday, Aviators right-hander Jake Buchanan (2-1, 5.88) vs. Fresno right-hander Paolo Espino (2-1, 6.00); Sunday, Aviators right-hander Paul Blackburn (3-1, 5.25) vs. Fresno right-hander Henderson Alvarez (0-2, 10.19); Monday, Aviators TBA vs. Fresno right-hander Austin Voth (2-2, 3.57).
WELCOME, MATT: Oakland A's first baseman Matt Olson has joined the Aviators on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment. Olson, who had surgery to remove a broken hamate bone from his right hand on March 22, started at first base in the final two games in Reno, going hitless in seven at-bats. Last year, the 25-year-old played in all 162 games with the A's, batting .247 with 29 home runs and 84 RBIs, while also winning his first Gold Glove.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.