After going nearly 20 months without playing a meaningful baseball game, everyone associated with the Las Vegas Aviators was beyond thrilled to be back at Las Vegas Ballpark for Thursday’s 2021 season opener against the Sacramento River Cats. But nobody could’ve been chomping at the bit more than starting pitcher
After going nearly 20 months without playing a meaningful baseball game, everyone associated with the Las Vegas Aviators was beyond thrilled to be back at Las Vegas Ballpark for Thursday’s 2021 season opener against the Sacramento River Cats. But nobody could’ve been chomping at the bit more than starting pitcher James Kaprielian.
The last time the right-hander threw a pitch in a meaningful game was in Game 5 of the Pacific Coast League Southern Conference playoffs on September 8, 2019. Forced to start the rubber match of a best-of-5 series against Sacramento because several Aviators pitchers had been promoted to the Oakland A’s, Kaprielian — who had spent the majority of the season at Double-A — didn’t make it out of the first inning. He gave up four runs (a pair of two-run homers) on five hits in just two-thirds of an inning, and Las Vegas never recovered, falling 7-3.
Needless to say, Kaprielian took the mound Thursday looking for redemption against the very same opponent that roughed him up the last time he donned an Aviators’ uniform. The 27-year-old got his redemption — but only to a degree.
Kaprielian surrendered just two runs over 4 2/3 innings, but he failed to get any support from either the Aviators’ offense or bullpen as the River Cats cruised to an 8-1 victory before limited-capacity crowd of 5,002.
Thairo Estrada paced Sacramento’s 16-hit attack by going 4-for-5 with a home run and four RBI, while six River Cats pitchers completely stymied the Aviators, who managed just four hits (including none until the fifth inning).
While Kaprielian wasn’t razor sharp — he yielded eight hits — he only walked one, struck out five and showed poise in pitching out of trouble in the first, third and fourth innings. And the two runs he did allow weren’t entirely his fault: Sacramento’s Mitchell Tolman led off the third inning with a deep flyball that Las Vegas left fielder Luis Barrera misplayed into a triple. Two batters later, Tolman trotted home on a Estrada’s single.
Then after giving up back-to-back singles to start the fifth inning, Kaprielian (0-1) induced a double play before being replaced by reliever Matt Blackham. The right-hander issued back-to-back walks to load the bases, then surrendered a two-run double to Chadwick Tromp, with one of the runs charged to Kaprielian.
Suddenly trailing 3-0 — and still looking for its first hit of 2021 — Las Vegas looked to mount a rally in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Barrera singled sharply to left field off River Cats reliever Anthony Banda (1-0). Barrera’s hit moved Edwin Diaz (who had walked) to second base, but things quickly fizzled when Pete Kozma grounded into a double play.
It wasn’t the only missed opportunity for the Aviators, who drew seven walks through 5 1/3 innings, but cashed in only one: In the sixth, Skye Bolt followed walks to Jacob Wilson and Francisco Peña with Las Vegas’ second hit, a one-out single to left that drove in Wilson and trimmed Sacramento’s lead to 3-1. Once again, though, the rally came to a screeching halt when, on the very next pitch, Carlos Perez grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Having escaped jams in back-to-back innings, the River Cats immediately made the Aviators pay, as Joey Bart belted an opposite-field, two-run homer in the seventh and Estrada crushed a three-run homer onto the pool deck in right-center field to blow the game open.
The Aviators did have a couple of chances to produce a miracle comeback, but in keeping with the theme of the night, they failed to come up with the big hit, leaving two runners on base in the eighth and the bases loaded in the ninth.
GAME NOTES: The Aviators, who in 2019 ranked first or second in the PCL in every meaningful offensive category, finished with just four hits: singles by Barrera, Bolt, Kozma and Greg Deichmann. … Las Vegas went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base. Sacramento also wasted multiple opportunities, going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position while stranding eight. Each team grounded into two double plays. … Sacramento starter Tyler Beede, who was on a pitch count, faced just three batters before being relieved by Kervin Castro with two outs in the first inning. After recording the final out, Castro gave way to Banda, who picked up the victory after allowing just two hits and an unearned run while walking six and striking out three in 4 1/3 innings. … With the loss, Las Vegas fell to 17-21 all-time in season openers (20-18 in home openers).
LOOK TO THE SKYE: The Aviators’ Opening Day lineup featured an unexpected (but familiar) name penciled into the No. 6 spot: Bolt.
A fixture in the Aviators’ outfield in 2019, Bolt was drafted by the Oakland A’s (the Aviators’ parent club) and had spent the first six years of his professional career with the organization. However, when he didn’t make Oakland’s big-league roster out of spring training — and because he was out of minor-league options — Bolt was designated for assignment on April 1.
The San Francisco Giants claimed Bolt off waivers, and he actually appeared in two big-league games in April before again being designated for assignment last week. On Tuesday, the A’s reacquired Bolt for cash considerations and assigned him to Las Vegas, where he hit .269 with 11 home runs, 16 doubles and 61 RBI in 2019.
Had Bolt not been waived by the Giants, he still would’ve been at Las Vegas Ballpark on Thursday — as a member of the River Cats, the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate.
ON DECK: The Aviators and River Cats continue their six-game series at 7:05 p.m. Friday. Parker Dunshee (4-5, 5.38 ERA in 19 starts with Las Vegas in 2019) will take the mound for Las Vegas and face fellow right-hander Nick Tropeano. A fireworks show will follow the game.
COVID-19 PROTOCOLS REMINDER: Plan on attending an upcoming Aviators game at Las Vegas Ballpark? Remember: Face coverings are mandatory and must be worn at all times, even while seated, unless actively eating or drinking. Fans are also asked to practice social distancing when walking about the concourse and/or at the concession stands. Also, hand sanitizer stations are available throughout the ballpark.
More information on Las Vegas Ballpark’s health and safety guidelines and security restrictions can be found here.
Catch every Aviators game throughout the season on Raider Nation Radio 920-AM, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @AviatorsLV.