It's the goal of any baseball team, particularly one in the thick of a playoff race, to be playing its best coming down the stretch of a long season. And no team in the Pacific Coast League - or really any league - is achieving that goal like the Aviators are right now.
Following a four-game sweep of the Tacoma Rainiers in the Pacific Northwest - a sweep in which Las Vegas scored 17 runs, allowed just four and pitched two shutouts - the Aviators (80-52) are riding a nine-game winning streak. Not only is it the team's longest winning streak of the season, but it's the longest current streak in the PCL - one that has helped Las Vegas build a three-game lead over El Paso in the PCL's Pacific Southern Division with eight games to play.
The Aviators' path to the playoffs is now clear: Any combination of six victories or six Chihuahuas losses over the next eight games, and Las Vegas will claim the division crown.
It's been a remarkable turnaround, given that the Aviators relinquished first place to El Paso back on April 27 - following a 12-3 home loss to the Chihuahuas - and trailed by as many as four games as recently as July 25. But since that date, Las Vegas has posted a 21-7 record, which includes 12 victories in its last 14 road games.
In fact, the Aviators are in control of their destiny thanks mostly to their success away from Las Vegas Ballpark. Since June 15, they're 25-8 as a visitor, and their 43-23 road record is now tied with El Paso for tops in the PCL. And with the sweep in Tacoma, Las Vegas has also now won five straight road series; overall this season, it has won or tied 15 of 17 road series.
The most impressive road performance of them all? It's difficult to top what happened over the weekend in Tacoma. After capping a seven-game homestand with five consecutive victories during which they scored 47 runs, the Aviators traveled north and let their pitching staff take over.
Starters Matt Harvey, Sean Manaea, Parker Dunshee and Jesús Luzardo combined to pitch 23 1/3 innings while limiting the Rainiers to just two runs on 11 hits and four walks while racking up a whopping 31 strikeouts. Not to be outdone, the bullpen was just as sensational, as 10 relief pitchers each made one appearance and combined to surrender just two runs on six hits and three walks while striking out 16 over 12 2/3 innings.
All totaled, the 14 Aviators pitchers who took the mound in Tacoma allowed just four runs, 17 hits and seven walks while striking out 47 over 36 innings - that equates to a 1.00 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP and a 6.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And they did it all without their ace, Paul Blackburn, throwing a single pitch.
That changes tonight in Albuquerque, where Blackburn (11-3, 4.08 ERA) goes for his team-leading 12th victory against fellow right-hander Rico Garcia (2-4, 7.16). Blackburn is coming off one of his best outings of the season, Wednesday's 18-4 defeat of Reno at Las Vegas Ballpark. Blackburn limited the Aces to just a single run on three hits and a walk while striking out seven in six innings.
Blackburn is now 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA over his last five appearances (four starts), having surrendered just five runs on 26 hits and two walks over 30 1/3 innings. And in three games (two starts) against Albuquerque this season, the 25-year-old has posted a 1.93 ERA, yielding five runs (four earned) on 12 hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings.
Of course, tonight marks the first time Blackburn will face the Isotopes with his team a season-high 28 games over .500 and looking to win its 10th consecutive game overall, its seventh straight on the road and move one step closer to celebrating a division title.
DUNSHEE WINS PCL HONOR: Dunshee thoroughly dominated the Rainiers in Saturday's 4-2 victory, allowing just three hits in 5 2/3 scoreless with no walks and nine strikeouts. That followed an equally sensational outing against Reno on August 19, when the right-hander yelided one unearned run on one hit and one walk while striking out six.
Those two performances earned Dunshee the PCL Pitcher of the Week award, which was announced Monday. Dunshee, who lowered his season ERA from 5.63 to 4.90 with his two starts last week, becomes the fourth Aviators player (and first pitcher) to be honored by the PCL. Mark Payton (twice) and Seth Brown have won Player of the Week honors, while Franklin Barreto was named Player of the Month for June.
Dunshee, a seventh-round draft choice of the Oakland A's in 2017, has now won Pitcher of the Week four times in his brief professional career. The 24-year-old earned the award twice last season, first with Single-A Stockton (California) in April then with Double-A Midland (Texas) in August, and he won it again this April while at Midland before joining the Aviators in mid-May.
PLAYING THE HITS: Brown, who continues to lead the PCL with 104 RBI and 286 total bases while ranking second in the PCL with 37 homers (one behind Reno's Kevin Cron), is also in the midst of a nine-game hitting streak. During the hot run, Brown is batting .429 (15-for-35) with three homers, nine RBI and five multi-hit games.
However, three other Aviators hitters - Sheldon Neuse (10 games), Barreto (9) and Payton (8) - had lengthy hitting streaks snapped over the weekend in Tacoma.
On the bright side, like Brown, both Neuse and Payton enter the final week of the season among the league leaders in multiple categories. Neuse leads the PCL in hits with 156 (five more than Sacramento's Maurcio Dubon), while his 102 RBI trail Brown by two and his 271 total bases rank fourth. Meanwhile, Payton ranks third in slugging percentage at .655 (Brown is fourth at .634) and third in OPS at 1.046.
Also, Las Vegas' Jorge Mateo leads the PCL with 14 triples (one more than Omaha's Brett Phillips), while former Aviators infielder Corban Joseph (now with the Oakland A's) continues to rank second in batting average at .371.
Finally, four Aviators players occupy the top six spots in the most-hits category, with Neuse first, Dustin Fowler third (146), Mateo fourth (145) and Joseph sixth (142).
ON DECK: Harvey (1-0, 1.80 ERA) is scheduled to follow Blackburn in the Las Vegas rotation and take the mound Tuesday, while fellow right-hander Ben Meyer (3-5, 7.36) is slated to start for Albuquerque. First pitch for all four games of the series is 5:35 p.m. Pacific Time.
The Aviators lead the season series against the Isotopes, 7-5.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.