If the Aviators do indeed go on to win a division title in their inaugural season, there's no doubt they will look back and point to a slew of come-from-behind victories as the reason they pulled it off. And the latest one was as critical - and thrilling - as any.
Trailing the Reno Aces 5-3 entering the bottom of the ninth Monday, the last four batters in the Aviators' lineup - Mark Payton, Franklin Barreto, Jonah Heim and Jorge Mateo - started the inning with consecutive hits off Aces relief pitcher Damien Magnifico. But it was Magnifico's throwing error on Mateo's bunt single that proved to be the difference, as pinch-runner Trace Loehr trotted home with the deciding run in a 6-5 victory before what remained of a crowd of 7,372.
It was Aviators' sixth come-from-behind victory this month, including their third walk-off win (all at home), and fifth one-run victory in their last 13 games. More importantly, by running its winning streak to three in a row, Las Vegas (74-52) remains tied with El Paso atop the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division with 14 games to play.
This particular victory in the opener of a three-game series against Reno was as swift as it was stunning, as the Aviators absolutely ambushed Magnifico from the moment the right-hander entered the game with a 5-3 lead. Appearing in just his fourth game for the Aces after pitching six scoreless innings in his previous three outings, Magnifico gave up a sharp single to Payton on a 2-2 pitch. Franklin then ripped a 3-1 pitch down the left field line for a double that scored Payton.
Heim then drilled Magnifico's next pitch to left-center field for another double, this one bringing home Barreto with the tying run. Aviators manager Fran Riordan then replaced Heim with Loehr, who had rejoined the team from Class-A Stockton (California) earlier Monday. Loehr didn't remain on second base very long, as Mateo laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt that was intended to only get Loehr to third. However, Mateo sprinted to first, and even though the Aviators' speedy shortstop was clearly going to reach safely, Magnifico inexplicably winged the ball wildly past first baseman Kevin Cron and down the right-field line.
Magnifico's miscue allowed Loehr to shift into cruise control, and after he touched home plate, his teammates raced onto the field for another walk-off celebration.
Oddly enough, it didn't appear like the Aviators would need any late-inning dramatics early on. Thanks to three solo home runs - including two more from slugger Seth Brown and one from Barreto - as well as an outstanding performance from starting pitcher Parker Dunshee, Las Vegas carried a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning. But that's when the wheels came off.
The Aces (59-67) sent nine men to the plate and scored four runs, all of them charged to relief pitcher Brian Schlitter, who failed to retire any of the four batters he faced. Reno could've done even more damage, but J.B. Wendelken took over for Schlitter, and although he gave up an RBI single that plated the Aces' fourth run, the right-hander retired the other three batters to put out the fire.
Wendelken (6-2) returned to the mound in the top of the ninth and once again retired three of the four batters he faced to keep his team within striking distance entering the bottom of the ninth. Knowing El Paso had already defeated Fresno 9-1 at home, Las Vegas was staring at the prospect of falling back into second place. But thanks to the quartet of Payton, Barreto, Heim and Mateo - with a little help from Loehr and a lot of help from Magnifico - the Aviators made sure they would wake up Tuesday morning side by side with the Chihuahuas in what is easily the PCL's most exciting division race.
GAME NOTES: The Aviators are now 9-5 against Reno this season and thus have clinched the Silver State Diamond Challenge and retained the Silver Plate trophy for the second straight year. … With his two home runs, Brown now has 37 on the season, one back of Cron, who went 0-for-3 with a walk Monday. Brown also added to his league-leading RBI total, as he now has 103, five more than Cron. In 34 games since the All-Star break, the first baseman/outfielder is batting .336 with 19 homers 44 RBI, 32 runs and a stunning 1.207 OPS. He's also hit safely in nine of his last 11 contests, going 16-for-41 (.391) with seven homers and 20 RBI … Dunshee, who entered Monday's game with a stellar 2.89 ERA over his previous four appearances (three starts), thoroughly dominated the Aces, allowing only three baserunners (single, walk and hit batter) over six innings. The right-hander also struck out exactly one batter in every inning, retired 17 of the 20 batters he faced (including the final eight in a row) and threw 59 of his 87 pitches for strikes. … Barreto has hit safely in four straight games and six of his last seven. During that stretch, he's 10-for-27 (.370) with four homers and eight RBI. … Las Vegas infielder Sheldon Neuse singled in the third to extend his hitting streak to six games, during which he's 8-for-21 (.381) with two homers, four runs and six RBI. … The Aviators are now 14-2 on Mondays this year and 45-19 on games played Monday through Thursday.
TRANSACTION ACTION: Prior to Monday's game, the Oakland A's - the Aviators' parent club - optioned left-handed relief pitcher Wei-Chung Wang and catcher Dustin Garneau to Las Vegas. Wang started the season with Las Vegas before being promoted to Oakland on May 25. He went 1-0 with a 3.33 ERA in 20 relief appearances with Oakland after going 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA and one save in 16 appearances with the Aviators. To take Wang's spot on the roster, the A's are expected to promote lefty A.J. Puk on Tuesday.
Garneau was claimed off waivers by the A's on August 3 and appeared in seven games, going 5-for-17 (.294) with one homer and seven RBI. Prior to joining Oakland, Garneau split time this season with the Los Angeles Angels and their Triple-A affiliate, the Salt Lake Bees.
In other roster news, Aviators starting pitcher Daniel Mengden was placed on the seven-day injured list, paving the way for Loehr's promotion from Class-A Stockton (California). It's the third time this month the utility infielder has been called up to Las Vegas, which had just one extra position player on the roster - catcher Cameron Rupp - after infielder Eric Campbell was placed on the injured list Sunday after tweaking his left hamstring a day earlier.
ON DECK: Las Vegas and Reno will continue their three-game set at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday. Jesús Luzardo (1-1, 5.17 ERA), the top prospect in the A's system, will make his fifth start for the Aviators and second since missing six weeks with an injury to his lat muscle. The southpaw is scheduled to oppose Reno right-hander Jon Duplantier (0-2, 6.39).
In celebration of local Latino/Hispanic culture and in conjunction with Minor League Baseball's Copa de la Diversión initative, the Aviators will morph into the Reyes de Plata (Silver Kings) for the eighth and final time at home this season. When donning the Reyes de Plata jerseys, Las Vegas is 7-1 at home and 8-2 overall.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.