Hours before the Aviators took the field for Sunday's game against Oklahoma City, they got some positive news: The El Paso Chihuahuas, the team Las Vegas has been chasing in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division for more than three months, lost 2-0 in Memphis. That meant a victory over the Dodgers at Las Vegas Ballpark would pull the Aviators even with El Paso atop the division for the first time since April 26.
Given that they had won the first two games of the series against Oklahoma City and had one of their best starting pitchers on the mound, the prospects for that victory looked strong.
Alas, the Dodgers chose not to cooperate.
Despite a furious late-game charge in which they scored four runs in the final two innings, the Aviators came up short, falling 7-6 before a crowd of 8,470. With the defeat, Las Vegas remains a game behind El Paso with 27 to play.
Oklahoma City (52-60) built leads of 4-0, 6-1 and 7-2 on the strength of catcher Austin Barnes (2-for-4, homer, three RBI) and outfielders Zach Reks (2-for-4, run, RBI) and DJ Peters (two-run single). And they maintained those leads on the strength of their defense, which turned four double plays in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings to thwart multiple Las Vegas rallies.
But as they've done all season, the Aviators (65-48) refused to quit. They plated two runs in the eighth on Corban Joseph's RBI double that scored Dustin Fowler (triple) and Sheldon Neuse's RBI single. Then facing Dodgers closer Kevin Quackenbush, Mark Payton led off the ninth with a double and went to third when Eric Campbell followed with a single. Both runners scored on consecutive groundouts by pinch-hitter Beau Taylor and Skye Bolt.
Then Fowler stepped to the plate as the tying run and ripped Quackenbush's 1-0 pitch that appeared destined for right field. But Oklahoma City second baseman Drew Jackson made a spectacular play, diving to his right to snare the ball, which he threw to first from his knees to end the game.
Aviators right-hander Daniel Mengden (4-3) suffered the loss in his first start since being optioned to Las Vegas after a six-week stint with the Oakland A's. Mengden actually began the game strong, retiring the first six batters he faced, but he ran into trouble in the third when Oklahoma City batted around and scored four runs. In consecutive at-bats, Barnes hit a sacrifice fly, Reks' had an RBI single and Peters pounded a two-run double off the left-center field wall.
Mengden got out of the inning on a strikeout, but that ended the right-hander's night, as he was on a limited pitch count after having not pitched in nine days.
Meanwhile, Mengden's counterpart - Dodgers right-hander Logan Bawcom - didn't allow a baserunner until two outs in the bottom of the third, when Aviators catcher Cameron Rupp belted an opposite-field, first-pitch home run off the right-field foul pole. But Oklahoma City answered with two runs in the fourth and one in the sixth to open up a 7-2 lead.
The positives in the defeat? There were a few. First, relievers Ben Bracewell, Kyle Finnegan and Trey McNutt allowed just three hits and one earned run - Barnes' homer in the sixth - over the final five innings. In fact, at one point, the trio of right-handers retired 15 of 17 batters while striking out nine.
Offensively, Campbell went 2-for-3 and is now 8-for-12 in the first three games of this series with two homers and 10 RBI. Also, Joseph (2-for-4, run, RBI), Fowler (2-for-2, 2 runs) and Neuse (2-for-4, RBI) had multi-hit games, with Fowler and Neuse extending their hitting streaks to five and 11 games, respectively.
GAME NOTES: The Aviators have split the first six games on their seven-game homestand. … Jorge Mateo, who has been dealing with an ankle injury for several days, returned to shortstop for the first time since Wednesday but left in the fourth inning when he stepped awkwardly on second base while trying to complete a double play. It's unknown how long the PCL All-Star will be sidelined. … Neuse is 23-for-52 (.442) during his 11-game hitting streak with four doubles, three homers, 11 RBI and 12 runs. … The Aviators went 4-for-13 with runners in scoring position, while the Dodgers were 4-for-9. … The start was Mengden's first in Las Vegas since June 16. … Aviators starting pitchers have compiled an impressive 25-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in their last seven games.
TRANSACTION ACTION: As expected, Aviators catcher Jordan Devencenzi and infielder Trace Loehr were sent back to Class-A Stockton on Sunday. Both players were promoted to Las Vegas last week because the Aviators were short on position players due to injuries and call-ups by the Oakland A's. And both made the most of their first career stint in Triple A.
Devencenzi replaced fellow catcher Sean Murphy (injury) in the seventh inning of Wednesday's game against New Orleans and singled in his only at-bat. Meanwhile, Loehr's first Triple-A at bat was one for the ages, as he hit a walk-off, three-run homer in the 10th inning Friday to beat Oklahoma City. He then started Saturday's game and went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored.
Devencenzi and Loehr were sent back to Stockton to make room for Taylor and Franklin Barreto, both of whom the A's optioned to Las Vegas. Another catcher, Jonah Heim, will likely be activated from the seven-day injured list Monday. Heim has been sidelined since July 19 with a bad hamstring.
ON DECK: The Aviators wrap up their four-game series against the Dodgers and their homestand on Monday. Tanner Anderson (7-5, 5.88 ERA) is scheduled take the ball for Las Vegas and oppose fellow right-hander Daniel Corcino (8-4, 3.96). First pitch is at 7:05 p.m.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.