The Aviators have spent a good portion of the 2019 season beating up on the Sacramento River Cats, winning 13 of 19 head-to-head meetings. If they can do it one more time, they'll deliver the Las Vegas franchise its first Pacific Coast League playoff series triumph in 31 years.
Outfielders Skye Bolt and Mark Payton both homered and doubled, starter Jesús Luzardo pitched 5 2/3 solid innings and the defense turned three double plays as the Aviators rolled to an 11-4 victory over the River Cats on Friday before a crowd of 8,187 at Las Vegas Ballpark. By winning the first-ever playoff game at their first-year ballpark, the Aviators now lead the best-of-5 PCL Pacific Conference Championship Series 2-1.
With one more victory in either Game 4 on Saturday or Game 5 on Sunday, the franchise will clinch its first postseason series since 1988.
"Just an all-around great performance by our club tonight," Aviators manager Fran Riordan said. "We put up 11 runs, got a great start out of Jesús and the bullpen came in and did their job. And we also made a lot of great defensive plays that saved runs."
Las Vegas racked up a total of 14 hits, with Bolt (2-for-4) and Payton (3-for-5) leading a crop of six Aviators who finished with multiple hits. In what was the definition of a complete team victory, everyone in the lineup reached base safely at least once by the sixth inning; the team went 7-for-13 with runners in scoring position; Luzardo and relief pitcher Trey McNutt put together a string of six consecutive scoreless innings; Payton made two sensational defensive plays in left field in the same inning; and the infield turned double plays in the third, seventh and ninth innings.
About the only thing the Aviators didn't do well was make the score even more lopsided, as they left 10 runners on base, including one in every inning but the seventh.
"Everybody contributed," said Payton, who now has an 11-game hitting streak dating back to the regular season. "One through nine in the lineup, the defense with the double plays we turned, Luzardo pitched great, and the rest of the pitching staff did its job."
The game actually started ominously for the Aviators, as Sacramento leadoff hitter Abiatal Avelino smacked Luzardo's fourth pitch over the right-center field wall to give the River Cats a 1-0 lead. But that lead would be the only one Sacramento would enjoy the entire night, and it didn't last long, as the Aviators' hitters quickly went on the attack and made sure the Triple-A debut of River Cats starting pitcher Brandon Lawson would be one to forget.
After Jorge Mateo struck out leading off the bottom of the first, Las Vegas strung together four straight hits, the latter two being Payton's RBI double and Dustin Garneau's run-scoring infield single. Then after tacking on another run courtesy of Dustin Fowler's two-out single in the second, the Aviators opened the floodgates in third, sending nine men to the plate and scoring four times.
Payton lit the fuse when he led off with an opposite-field home run to left field, his first of the playoffs and 31st of the season. The 27-year-old Illinois native added a single as part of a three-run eighth inning, finished the night 3-for-5 with two runs and two RBI, and is now batting .462 in the playoffs. As if that wasn't enough, in the top of the fourth inning, he threw out Sacramento catcher Francisco Peña, who tried to stretch a single into a double, and four batters later he made ran down a line drive near the warning track that ended the inning and saved two runs.
"You can't say enough about the year that Mark has had," Riordan said. "He's been so consistent on both sides of the ball and been just a great contributor to the team. It doesn't matter where in the lineup he hits, it doesn't matter what position he plays, he's going to produce for you. It's been a lot of fun watching the kind of year he's had."
After Payton's home run, Garneau drew a walk and one out later, Jonah Heim singled him to second. That brought up Bolt, who ripped a two-run double to the wall in center field, then he promptly trotted home when Mikey White followed with a bloop single to right that gave the Aviators a 7-1 lead and sent Lawson to the showers.
The River Cats finally kept Las Vegas off the scoreboard in the fourth, but Bolt made sure his team wouldn't post another goose egg in the fifth, leading off with a solo homer off Sacramento reliever Sam Moll. It was Bolt's third long ball of the series, following a solo shot in Game 1 and a two-run blast in Game 2, both in Sacramento.
Those three home runs match the same number of hits Bolt had in his final 46 at-bats of the regular season.
"It's great to see, because the way [Bolt] finished the season wasn't ideal from a personal standpoint," Riordan said. "But he stuck with it, never lost confidence and never stopped working to get back to being the hitter he knows he's capable of being. And now you see the results in what he's done so far in the playoffs.
While the offense took care of its business, so too did Luzardo. After surrendering Avelino's leadoff homer, he allowed Cristhian Adames to reach on a hard-hit infield single. But after that, 21-year-old southpaw settled down and retired eight of the next 10 batters, striking out five of them. Luzardo (1-0) ended up holding Sacramento to just the first-inning run while scattering seven hits and two walks with seven strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings.
McNutt replaced Luzardo and pitched through the seventh inning, allowing just one baserunner on a hit batter. Then in the eighth, the River Cats finally ended their offensive drought by scoring three times off Aviators reliever Miguel Romero to trim their deficit to 8-5. But Las Vegas got all of those runs right back in the bottom of the inning, thanks to Garneau's two-run double and Heim's RBI single.
Ben Bracewell then took over and pitched a scoreless ninth to end an impressive victory and push the Aviators within one win of reaching the PCL Championship Series.
"We're close," Riordan said. "But this River Cats team has shown the ability to keep fighting and keep battling, and it's not going to be an easy task for us tomorrow. We've got to come and play a great game."
GAME NOTES: Besides Bolt and Payton, Fowler (2-for-5, 1 run, 1 RBI), Campbell (2-for-5, 2 runs), Garneau (2-for-3, 2 walks, 3 RBI) and Heim (2-for-4, 2 runs, 1 RBI) had multiple hits. … Las Vegas, which set a franchise record with 250 home runs in the regular season, has added eight more through its first three playoff games. … During his 11-game hitting streak, Payton is batting .457 (21-for-46) with two home runs, five doubles and eight RBI. He has multiple hits in nine of those 11 contests. … The Aviators have now outscored the River Cats this season by a cumulative score of 140-89. … The Iowa Cubs defeated the Round Rock Express 3-2 on Friday to stay alive in the PCL American Conference Championship Series. Round Rock leads the series 2-1, with all three games being decided by one run.
ON DECK: Game 4 of the series will feature a battle of right-handers, with the Aviators' Grant Holmes set to oppose Sacramento's Carlos Navas on Saturday. First pitch at Las Vegas Ballpark is at 7:05 p.m.
Holmes will be making his second start for Las Vegas since being called up from Double-A Midland (Texas). In his Triple-A debut on August 31, the hard-throwing 23-year-old allowed one run - a first-inning solo homer - on six hits over 4 2/3 innings, walking one and striking out five.
Meanwhile, Navas appeared in 15 games (five starts) with the River Cats in the regular season, going 0-5 with a 5.08 ERA. In two appearances against the Aviators (both in Sacramento), Navas surrendered six runs (two earned) on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings.
Catch every Aviators playoff game on NBC Sports Radio 920-AM, and follow us on Twitter @AviatorsLV.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.