On one side of the field was the best hitting team in the Pacific Coast League, one that was 21 games over .500 and tied for first place in its division. On the other side was a team with the PCL's worst pitching staff, one that was 19 games under .500 and tied for last in the same division.
Indeed, all signs pointed to the Aviators opening their seven-game homestand Thursday with a victory over the Albuquerque Isotopes. But just as the Baltimore Colts learned against Joe Namath and the Jets in Super Bowl III and the Russian hockey team learned against Team USA in the 1980 Olympics and Mike Tyson learned against Buster Douglas in Tokyo, there's no such thing such thing as a sure thing in sports.
Before a sellout crowd of 9,219 at Las Vegas Ballpark, the Aviators spotted the Isotopes an early 7-0 lead before mounting a furious late-inning comeback, but they couldn't quite get over the hump, falling 9-6. The loss, coupled with El Paso's 13-2 blowout victory at Salt Lake, dropped Las Vegas (71-51) one game back of the Chihuahuas (72-50) in the PCL's Pacific Southern Division with 18 games to play.
Not only did all the statistics favor the Aviators entering Thursday's game, but so did the pitching matchup. Jesús Luzardo, the top prospect in the Oakland A's system and the No. 1 left-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball, took the mound for Las Vegas for the first time since July 2, when he was sidelined with strained his lat muscle. Meanwhile, Albuquerque handed the ball to Tim Melville, who sported a solid 9-5 record but a less-than-stellar 5.56 ERA.
Yet it was Melville, not Luzardo, who was dialed in early on. The right-hander held the PCL's most prolific offense without a hit for the first 5 1/3 innings, during which he issued three walks, induced two double plays and faced just one batter over the minimum.
While Melville was dealing, Luzardo was struggling. The 21-year-old gave up single runs in the first and third innings, then got tagged for three more - thanks in part to his own throwing error - in the fourth. On a strict 65-pitch limit, Luzardo was lifted after Isotopes catcher Drew Butera dropped that 65th pitch just inside the right-field line for an RBI double.
Luzardo (1-1) departed after 3 1/3 innings, having allowed five runs (four earned) on six hits with one walk and one strikeout. Unfortunately, reliever Brian Schlitter - who, like Luzardo, was activated from the injured list earlier in the day after missing a week with a neck strain - couldn't stop the bleeding. Schlitter yielded three hits and two walks that plated two additional runs and gave Albuquerque its 7-0 lead.
Two innings later, though, the Aviators' offense finally woke up. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Jorge Mateo - who also was activated from the injured list prior to Thursday's game - broke up Melville's no-hitter with a triple that rolled to the center-field wall. It was Mateo's 14th three-bagger of the season, setting a single-season Las Vegas franchise record for triples.
After Nick Martini followed with a walk, Dustin Fowler singled home Mateo for the Aviators' first run. One out later, Seth Brown walked to load the bases, and Eric Campbell followed with another free pass to force in a second run, but the rally died when Mark Payton struck out.
Albuquerque got a run back in the seventh on Josh Fuentes' home run off Paul Blackburn, but Las Vegas quickly answered in the bottom of the inning, sending nine men to the plate against Melville and reliever James Pazos and scoring four times to cut the Isotopes' lead to 8-6. Martini (RBI single), Sheldon Neuse (two-run single) and Campbell (two-out RBI single) delivered the big hits, but with Campbell and Neuse occupying first and third, respectively, Payton once again ended the rally, this time on a flyout.
Other than the homer to Fuentes, Blackburn - the ace of the Aviators' staff who was originally scheduled to start Thursday's game - was sensational in his 4 2/3 innings of relief. He scattered five hits, didn't walk a batter, struck out one and kept his team within striking distance. But while the Aviators made things interesting in the bottom of the eighth, putting the tying runs on base with one out, neither Martini nor Fowler could deliver the clutch hit, as both struck out.
After Albuquerque's Drew Weeks tacked on an insurance run with a two-out solo homer in the ninth off Las Vegas southpaw A.J. Puk, Isotopes closer Sam Howard retired Campbell on a line-drive double play to first base - the third twin-killing the Aviators hit into - to complete the upset.
GAME NOTES: Aviators manager Fran Riordan was ejected by home-plate umpire Junior Valentine prior to the start of the bottom of the fourth inning. … Seth Brown, who leads the Aviators with 34 homers and 95 RBI, was beaned in the head by Howard in the ninth inning. Brown lay on the ground for a brief moment, then bounced up and stayed in the game after being evaluated by Las Vegas trainer Brad LaRosa. Moments later, Brown was doubled off first on Campbell's liner that ended the game. … Over his last four outings, Blackburn has allowed just four runs in 24 1/3 innings, which equates to a 1.48 ERA. During that stretch, the right-hander has walked just one and struck out 12. … Mateo, who had been sidelined with an ankle injury, batted ninth for the first time all season and finished 2-for-3 with two runs scored. He was the only Aviators player to record multiple hits. … While Las Vegas finished with just six hits (five singles and Mateo's triple), it did draw 10 walks. However, the Aviators left a total of seven men on base in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. … With his two RBI Thursday, Neuse now has 92 on the season, putting him three back of Brown and Reno's Kevin Cron for the PCL lead. … Thursday's sellout was the 39th of the season at Las Vegas Ballpark.
TRANSACTION ACTION: The Aviators' pitching staff received a bit of a makeover upon returning home Thursday. Besides welcoming Luzardo and Schlitter back to the active roster, Las Vegas added veteran right-hander Matt Harvey, whom the Oakland A's signed to a minor-league contract Wednesday. Riordan said Harvey, who registered a 7.09 ERA in 12 starts this season with the Los Angeles Angels before being released last month, will start Saturday's game against Albuquerque.
Also, A's right-hander Marco Estrada has arrived in Las Vegas on a rehab assignment as he continues to work his way back from a back injury that has sidelined him since April. In four rehab starts with Class-A Stockton (California), Estrada posted a 7.04 ERA in 7 2/3 innings. Riordan said the veteran will start Friday's game and pitch two innings.
In other moves, Brian Howard was optioned back to Double-A Midland (Texas) to make from for Schlitter; Trace Loehr was sent back to Class-A Stockton (California) to clear roster space for Mateo; outfielder Skye Bolt (concussion) was placed on the injured list retroactive to August 8; and outfielder Nick Martini rejoined the team after being optioned from the Oakland A's on Wednesday.
ON DECK: The Aviators continue their four-game series against Albuquerque at 7:05 p.m. Friday. After Estrada pitches his two innings, Riordan said fellow right-hander Daniel Mengden is slated to take over on the mound. Meanwhile, the Isotopes are scheduled to hand the ball to right-hander Rico Garcia (1-4, 7.49 ERA).
The first 2,000 fans in attendance will receive a Spruce the Goose bobblehead, courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover Las Vegas.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.