SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - Aviators manager Fran Riordan has raved all season about his players' ability to always remain positive even in the direst of circumstances, refusing to believe they're ever out of a ballgame. Riordan's go-to buzzword in describing his team's never-say-die mentality? Resiliency.
Sure enough, that resiliency showed up in a big way Thursday during Game 2 of the team's Pacific Coast League Pacific Conference Championship Series against the Sacramento River Cats at Raley Field. Unfortunately, the River Cats' fortitude was just a little bit stronger.
Trailing 5-0 after four innings, the Aviators got home runs from Skye Bolt, Dustin Fowler and Cameron Rupp - all in the span of seven at-bats - to tie the game, but Sacramento plated three of the game's final four runs to pull out an 8-6 victory before a crowd of 3,765. With the win, the River Cats evened the best-of-5 series at 1-1, as the two teams now head south for Game 3 on Friday night at Las Vegas Ballpark.
"That's kind of been our calling card all year," Riordan said when asked about the Aviators' mid-game comeback Thursday. "When we've gotten down in a ballgame, we've done a nice job of staying in it and coming back and applying pressure on the opposing team. We did that [again tonight] by tying it up. But you have to give Sacramento credit. They battled and put up the two runs back [in the bottom of the sixth inning] after we scored the three, and that turned out to be the difference in the game."
Just as the Aviators did in Game 1, the River Cats scored five times in the third inning, inflicting all of the damage against Las Vegas starter Parker Dunshee. After Dunshee retired six of the first seven hitters he faced, Sacramento grabbed the lead courtesy of Abiatal Alevino's broken-bat RBI single and Christhian Adames' two-run homer (both with one out), followed by Joe McCarthy's two-out, two-run double.
While Dunshee scuffled, his counterpart had little trouble navigating an Aviators lineup that scored eight runs in Game 1 and averaged 7.2 runs in 17 previous games this season against Sacramento.
Looking nothing like the pitcher who posted a 7.64 ERA in seven games (four starts) with Sacramento in the regular season, right-hander Chase Johnson retired 12 of the first 15 batters he faced. After 4 1/3 innings, the only Aviators who reached base were Eric Campbell (first-inning walk), Mikey White (third-inning single) and Mark Payton (four-inning single).
But then with one out in the fourth, Aviators catcher Jonah Heim smacked an opposite-field double high off the left-field wall. Bolt followed with his own opposite-field fly ball to almost the same spot in left field - only this one landed on the other side of the wall for a two-run homer. It was the second home run in as many days for Bolt, who ended the regular season in a 3-for-46 slump. And this one got his team right back in the game.
"Anytime you're [trailing], you're just trying to get on base," Bolt said. "You can't hit a five-run home run, you can't hit a six-run home run. … But I got into a good count, got a pitch to handle the other way, which is what I do best, and it went over the fence. Had it not gone over, it would've been a single or a double, which would've just gotten the carousel started."
After Bolt's home run, Johnson recorded two easy outs to finish the fifth inning with 75 pitches. However, given that Johnson hadn't pitched deep into very many games all year, Sacramento manager Dave Brundage chose to go to his bullpen to start the sixth, handing the ball to switch-pitcher Pat Venditte. That decision backfired.
Leading off the inning, Dustin Fowler promptly crushed Venditte's second pitch over the right-field wall for a solo home run to trim Las Vegas' deficit to 5-3. After retiring Campbell on a short flyball to left field, Venditte beaned Payton, and three pitches later he hung a curveball that Cameron Rupp sent soaring over the left-field wall, a two-run blast that tied it at 5-5.
"You've seen it all year when we've been down, regardless of whether it's five or 10 runs, we're going to fight to the very last out," Riordan said. "To put up three runs against Venditte, who's not only a great pitcher but has had our number all year, that was a big boost for our offense."
Unfortunately for the Aviators, it didn't take the River Cats very long to reclaim the lead - and once again, McCarthy was prominently involved. The right-fielder reached base on a one-out single off Las Vegas reliever Tanner Anderson, moved to second on a groundout and scored the go-ahead run on Zach Houchins' single.
After Levi Michael followed with another single, Anderson was replaced by Brian Schlitter, whose first pitch to Avelino was smoked into right field. Avelino was thrown out at second on the play, but not before Houchins raced home with an insurance run that boosted the River Cats' lead to 7-5.
Sacramento would tack on another insurance run on Houchins' RBI single in the eighth, while Venditte and fellow River Cats relievers Dan Winkler and Williams Jerez retired 11 of 13 Aviators hitters after Rupp's home run. Although Las Vegas second baseman Mikey White did belt his team's fourth homer - a solo blast off Jerez with two outs in the ninth - it proved not to be a factor, as Jorge Mateo struck out to end the game.
If there was a silver lining in defeat for the Aviators, it's the fact that they did split the first two games on the road. More importantly, Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Saturday (as well as Game 5 on Sunday, if necessary) will be back at Las Vegas Ballpark. And greeting them will be more than 10,000 enthusiastic fans each night, all of whom will do their best to help push the franchise to its first playoff series victory since 1988.
"We've been a really good ballclub all year, one through nine in the order, and the starting pitching and bullpen have been phenomenal all year. So nothing really changes mentality-wise," Bolt said. "We'll be back at home, which is good-you get to sleep in your own bed and have your own fans rooting for you. We're going to be in good shape."
GAME NOTES: Despite giving up three runs on three hits in one inning of work, Venditte picked up the victory, while Jerez earned the save. Anderson, who surrendered two runs on three hits in 2 1/3 innings, took the loss. … Heim and White both finished 2-for-4, accounting for half of the Aviators' eight hits. … McCarthy went 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBI for Sacramento, while Houchins (2-for-2, 2 runs, 2 RBI) and Avelino (2-for-5, run, 2 RBI) also had multiple hits. … One night after going 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position, the River Cats were almost perfect in that situation in Game 2, going 5-for-6. … Both pitching staffs have combined for 40 strikeouts through the first two games of the series. … Prior to Game 2, Aviators relief pitcher J.B. Wendelken was placed on the reserve list in advance of his expected promotion to the Oakland A's on Friday. Fellow right-handed reliever Trey McNutt assumed Wendelken's spot on the active roster.
ON DECK: The Aviators and River Cats will resume their series Friday at Las Vegas Ballpark. Left-hander Jesus Luzardo is scheduled to start for Las Vegas opposite Sacramento right-hander Brandon Lawson. First pitch is at 7:05 p.m.
Luzardo made his first Triple-A start against the River Cats back on June 22 at Las Vegas Ballpark and allowed two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out five in 3 2/3 innings, as Sacramento earned a 4-3 victory. Meanwhile, Lawson will be making his River Cats and Triple-A debut, having spent the entire season in Double-A, where he was 5-9 with a 3.70 ERA.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.