With their ace on the mound Wednesday night at Las Vegas Ballpark, the Aviators took the field knowing they probably only needed a handful of runs to sweep the Reno Aces, win their fifth consecutive game and at least maintain their one-game division lead over the El Paso Chihuahuas.
Turns out, they didn't get a handful of runs - they got a truckload of runs.
One night after crushing three homers in a 10-4 rout of the Aces, Las Vegas hit seven more Wednesday to back yet another stellar start by Paul Blackburn on the way to an 18-4 rout before a crowd of 8,891. With the win, the Aviators (76-52) moved a season-high 24 games over .500 and, more importantly, held onto their one-game lead over El Paso in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division.
Sheldon Neuse, Mark Payton and Nick Martini all homered for the second straight night (with Payton's being an inside-the-parker); Sean Murphy belted a pair of three-run homers in his first game back after a three-week stint on the injured list; and Dustin Fowler and Trace Loehr each hit solo shots.
After taking a 1-0 lead in the first on Neuse's RBI groundout, the Aviators did the rest of their damage in the third, fifth and eighth innings. They sent exactly nine men to the plate in each inning, scoring six runs in the third, five in the fifth and six more in the eighth (with the latter all coming against Reno infielder Wyatt Mathisen).
When the onslaught was over, six different Aviators had multiple hits and all six scored multiple runs: Martini (3-for-5, three runs), Payton (3-for-4, two runs), Fowler (2-for-4, two runs), Murphy (2-for-4, two runs), Seth Brown (2-for-4, three runs) and Franklin Barreto (2-for-4, two runs).
As impressive as the offensive fireworks were, the real star of the show was Blackburn, who came into the game with a 1.48 ERA over his previous four appearances (three starts) and showed once again why he was a PCL All-Star this season. The right-hander held a powerful Reno offense to a run on three hits and walk while striking out seven over six innings.
But those stats only tell a sliver of the story. In one of his most economical outings of the season, Blackburn (11-3) needed just 75 pitches (46 strikes) to get through his six innings. And aside from a shaky second inning - when he allowed consecutive doubles and a walk to the first three Aces who came to the plate - Blackburn retired 17 of the other 18 batters he faced, including 12 in a row at one point.
By dominating Reno (59-69), Blackburn lowered his ERA to 4.08 and his WHIP to 1.21. He's now tied for second in the PCL with 11 wins, and his ERA and WHIP rank fourth and second in the league, respectively.
"Paul's been our ace since the beginning of the year," Aviators manager Fran Riordan said. "He's been as consistent as anybody in the PCL, and he's been [particularly] outstanding over the last two months. Anytime he goes out there, you know he's going to compete, he's going to command the baseball, he's going to go deep into the ballgame and he's going to give you an opportunity to win."
Blackburn certainly did all that Wednesday. And by the time he gave way to reliever Tanner Anderson in the seventh, the Aviators had things well under control with a 12-1 lead. And all Anderson did was pick right up where Blackburn left off, needing just 14 pitches to retire all six hitters he faced (all on groundouts) in the seventh and eighth innings.
Although the Aces did push across three meaningless runs in the ninth, it was virtually a flawless night all-around for the Aviators, who won the final five games of their seven-game homestand. About the only thing that didn't go their way? El Paso scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to rally for a 9-8 home victory over Fresno. That win kept the Chihuahuas (75-53) one game back of Las Vegas in the division with 12 games remaining for both teams.
For the Aviators, eight of those contests will take place on the road in Tacoma and Albuquerque over the next eight days. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as Las Vegas is 39-23 away from Las Vegas Ballpark this season, including 21-8 since June 15 and 10-3 in the last 13. What's more, the Aviators have won or split 14 of their 16 series on the highway and won or split 10 of 11 road trips.
If they can keep that mojo going for one more road trip, the Aviators' magical inaugural season very well may continue well into September.
HIT PARADE CONTINUES: Seven different Las Vegas players extended hitting streaks in Wednesday's blowout. Neuse has hit safely in eight in a row; Fowler has done so in seven straight games; Brown, Payton, and Barreto have hits in six consecutive contests; and Murphy is riding a five-game streak.
During their respective streaks, Neuse is 11-for-31 (.355) with four homers, six runs and 12 RBI; Fowler is 12-for-31 (.387) with a homer, five RBI and five runs; Brown is 12-for-24 (.500) with three homers and eight RBI; Payton is 11-for-25 (.440) with five homers, 11 RBI and eight runs; Barreto is 11-for-24 (.458) with two homers, six RBI and seven runs; and Murphy is 10-for-19 (.526) with eight homers, 19 RBI and nine runs.
Also, Brown, Barreto and Murphy have each recorded four straight multi-hit games.
GAME NOTES: Payton, Neuse and Fowler hit their 28th, 26th and 24th homers, respectively. They continue to rank second, third and fourth on the Aviators in home runs, trailing Brown, who has 37 big flies to go with a league-leading 103 RBI … Neuse continues to lead the PCL in hits with 152 and now sits second behind Brown with 101 RBI … Las Vegas finished the season series 11-5 against Reno. … Aces slugger Kevin Cron, who came into Las Vegas with PCL-best 38 homers and 99 RBI, ended the three-game series with just two singles, three walks and an RBI in 14 plate appearances. He still leads Brown by one in the home-run chase. … The Aviators are now 47-19 on games played Monday through Thursday. … To clear space for Murphy on the 25-man roster, catcher Jonah Heim was optioned back to Double-A Midland (Texas). It's likely that Heim, who was batting .358 in 35 games with the Aviators, will return to Las Vegas no later than September 1, when major-league rosters expand and several Aviators players are called up to the Oakland A's.
ON DECK: The Aviators will board an early-morning flight to Tacoma on Thursday and open a four-game series against the Rainiers. Veteran right-hander Matt Harvey (0-0, 0.00 ERA) will make his second start for Las Vegas in Thursday's opener, while the Rainiers are scheduled to counter with southpaw Sean Nolin (5-2, 4.83).
The Aviators' scheduled rotation for the rest of the series is as follows: Friday, Sean Manaea (2-1, 4.29); Saturday, Parker Dunshee (3-4, 5.23); Sunday, Jesús Luzardo (1-1, 4.43). First pitch for the first three games is 7 p.m., while Sunday's finale is at 1:35.
Following the four-game series in Tacoma, Las Vegas will travel to Albuquerque for four games against the Isotopes from Monday through August 29. The Aviators will then close out the regular season back at Las Vegas Ballpark with a four-game set against the Rainiers (August 30-September 2).
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.