For the past three weeks, the Aviators and El Paso Chihuahuas have engaged in what amounts to a staring contest. And with their performance over the past two nights, the Aviators have delivered a very clear message to the Chihuahuas: Our eyes are more wide open than Odell Beckham Jr. against a high school defensive back.
One night after blowing all of a 5-0 lead to Albuquerque only to pull out a 6-5 victory, Las Vegas spotted the Isotopes an early 2-0 lead Sunday before rallying for seven unanswered runs in a 7-2 victory before a sellout crowd of 9,513 at Las Vegas Ballpark. The Aviators (73-52) got home runs from Cameron Rupp, Mark Payton and Franklin Barreto, while starting pitcher Sean Manaea and three relievers combined to register twice as many strikeouts (12) as hits allowed (six).
With the victory, Las Vegas split the four-game series with the Isotopes (53-72) and remained in a flat-footed tie atop the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division with El Paso, which held off Salt Lake 10-8 on the road. Both squads have 15 games remaining in the regular season, and if the last three weeks are any indication, this tug-of-war is going down to the wire - and perhaps beyond.
Consider that in a span of 20 games dating to July 27, neither the Aviators nor the Chihuahuas has been more than two games out of first place. Even more incredibly, no more than one game has separated the two rivals in the last 14 contests. A big reason why has been Las Vegas' continued resiliency, which was on full display the past two nights.
After a pair of difficult losses to start the series against Albuquerque, the Aviators raced out to a 5-0 lead after two innings Saturday night. But the Isotopes answered with four runs in the fifth and one in the seventh to forge a 5-5 tie. But with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Sheldon Neuse smacked his 24th homer of the season, with the ball clearing the right-center field fence and amazingly landing in the hands of his father. Relief pitchers A.J. Puk and Kyle Finnegan made sure Neuse's go-ahead homer held up, limiting Albuquerque to just a walk over the final two innings to secure the 6-5 win.
Then on Sunday, it was the Isotopes' turn to grab an early lead, which they did with two outs in the top of the third, when Elliot Soto sent Manaea's 3-2 pitch over the right-field wall for a two-run homer. It was the only mistake Manaea made in his fifth rehab start with Las Vegas, as the southpaw allowed just three baserunners (two hits and a walk) and struck out six in his five innings of work.
While Manaea (2-1) retired seven of the final eight batters he faced, his teammates battled back to put him position to get the victory. After Rupp hit a solo homer with one out in the third, Dustin Fowler and Seth Brown started the fourth with a single and double, respectively. Then Neuse came up to bat and, once again, came up clutch, drilling a two-run double to center field to give the Aviators a 3-2 lead.
They would tack on four big insurance runs in the sixth inning, all with two outs, when Payton followed a Neuse walk with a two-run homer and Barreto followed Skye Bolt's walk with another two-run homer. The bullpen took over from there, as right-handers Shea Cotton, Ben Bracewell and Miguel Romero combined to hold the Isotopes to just four hits and two walks while fanning six over four innings.
When Romero retired Peter Mooney on a groundout to first to end it, the Aviators had their critical series split and once again found themselves staring eye-to-eye with El Paso in the Pacific Southern Division.
So who's going to blink first? Tape your eyelids open over the final 15 games to find out.
GAME NOTES: Puk, Finnegan, Cotton, Bracewell, Romero and Kyle Lobstein combined to strike out 11 Isotopes hitters in 6 1/3 scoreless innings on Saturday and Sunday. During that stretch, they yielded four hits and three walks. … While Nick Martini and Jorge Mateo each went 0-for-4 atop the Aviators' lineup Sunday, the final seven hitters combined to go 10-for-25 with three homers, all seven runs, all seven RBI and three walks. Barreto led the way with three hits in his four at-bats, while Fowler and Brown both went 2-for-4. … Albuquerque went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. … With his homer Saturday and two-run double Sunday, Neuse is riding a five-game hitting streak, during which he's 8-for-20 with two homers, four runs and six RBI. The third baseman now has 95 RBI for the season, which ranks fifth in the PCL. Brown continues to lead the pack with 101 RBI, while his 35 homers rank second to Reno's Kevin Cron, who has 38. … Neuse (94) and Brown (93) also rank tied for second and fourth, respectively, in runs scored. … Sunday's sellout was the third in a row and 41st of the season at Las Vegas Ballpark.
TRANSACTION ACTION: Prior to Sunday's game, the Aviators activated Bolt from the injured list. To make room for the outfielder, who had been sidelined with a concussion, Las Vegas placed infielder Eric Campbell on the injured list with a hamstring injury he suffered in Saturday's game.
ON DECK: The Aviators welcome the Reno Aces to Las Vegas Ballpark for a three-game series that starts at 7:05 p.m. Monday. Parker Dunshee (3-4, 5.63) is slated to start the series opener, opposite fellow right-hander Riley Smith (2-1, 6.80). The Aces, who are the top affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, are 59-66 and seven games back of Sacramento in Pacific Northern Division.
The Aviators are 8-5 against Reno this season (4-1 at home) and need just one victory to claim the season series and the Governor's Cup trophy.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.