It took more than 100 days, yet another comeback and yet another road victory, but the Aviators have finally circled back to the precise spot where their inaugural season began: all alone in first place.
Skye Bolt cracked a two-run homer to cap a three-run ninth inning and lead Las Vegas to an 8-6 victory over the Iowa Cubs in Wednesday's opener of a three-game series before a crowd of 8,154 at Principal Park. It was the Aviators' fourth victory in their last five games, with three of those wins coming in their final at-bat - and this one was huge: Coupled with El Paso's 20-12 home loss to Round Rock, Las Vegas assumed sole control of first place in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division.
The Aviators (67-48) now hold a one-game lead over the Chihuahuas (66-49) with 25 games remaining.
It was a long, slow climb back up the division ladder for Las Vegas, which had a stranglehold on first place after a 9-1 start to the season. But after a 12-3 home loss to El Paso on April 27, the teams swapped positions in the standings, and the Aviators sat in the co-pilot seat for the next 92 games until Wednesday night.
That the Aviators took over first place on the road is only fitting, considering they've been one of the PCL's best teams away from home. With Wednesday's win, they're now 35-21 on the highway (compared with 32-27 in Las Vegas). It's also fitting that they passed El Paso courtesy of a come-from-behind win, which has been more the norm than the exception throughout the season - especially lately.
After rallying for walk-off victories over Oklahoma City on Friday and Monday at Las Vegas Ballpark, the Aviators trailed 2-0 and 5-2 early on against Iowa (61-54). But they clawed their way back with single runs in the fourth, fifth and eighth innings, the last run coming off the bat of Sheldon Neuse, whose pinch-hit solo homer - his 22nd of the season - tied the game at 5.
Along the way, Las Vegas' bullpen went into full shutdown mode: After starting pitcher Brian Howard struggled in his 2 2/3 innings of work, allowing five runs on eight hits, relievers Trey McNutt, A.J. Puk, Kyle Lobstein and Kyle Finnegan combined to hold the Cubs to just a single run on six hits and a walk while striking out 10 over the final 6 1/3 innings.
Because the bullpen did its job, the Aviators had a chance to once again work some final-at-bat magic. This particular rally started when Dustin Fowler led off with a first-pitch double to right field off Cubs closer Alex Wilson, who had just been optioned to Iowa from the Chicago Cubs earlier in the day.
After Eric Campbell flied out, Corban Joseph dropped Wilson's 1-0 pitch into center field for a single that scored Fowler and gave Las Vegas its first lead of the night. Wilson (4-2) then retired Seth Brown on a soft liner to shortstop, but Bolt followed with a two-run blast that sailed over the right-field fence and gave his team an 8-5 advantage.
The insurance runs Bolt provided proved to be pivotal, as Iowa snapped a five-inning scoreless drought in the bottom of the ninth. Lobstein (3-2) allowed consecutive hits to Phillip Evans (single) and Mark Zagunis (double) to start the inning, and Addison Russell followed with a sacrifice fly.
At that point, Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan summoned Finnegan from the bullpen, and the right-hander promptly gave up a single to Robel Garcia, sending Zagunis to third base. That brought up Trent Giambrone, who represented the winning run. But with Garcia running on Finnegan's 3-2 pitch, Giambrone took strike three, and catcher Jonah Heim nailed Garcia at second for a game-ending double play.
At that point, the Aviators knew they'd at least end the day still tied for first place. But about an hour later, the players and coaches learned that Round Rock rallied from deficits of 8-4 and 10-5 in El Paso, ensuring that the Aviators would wake up all alone in first place for the first time since April 26.
GAME NOTES: The first three batters in Las Vegas' lineup - Fowler, Campbell and Joseph - combined to go 6-for-15 with three runs and three RBI. Bolt (2-for-5, HR, 2 RBI), Mark Payton (2-for-4, RBI) and Heim (2-for-4, run, RBI) also had multiple hits. … Campbell went 2-for-5, but struck out in his first at-bat in the first inning, ending a streak in which he reached base safely in eight consecutive at-bats. … By holding on in the ninth, Finnegan earned his third save. … With his pinch-hit homer in the eighth, Neuse extended his season-best hitting streak to 14 games. During that stretch, the third baseman is 25-for-57 (.439) with five doubles, four homers, 12 RBI and 14 runs. … Heim is 4-for-7 in two games since being activated from the injured list Monday. The switch-hitter has now hit safely in 24 of 28 games since being promoted from Double-A Midland (Texas), with nine multi-hit contests. … While Howard had only two strikeouts in his 2 2/3 innings of work, Las Vegas starting pitchers still have an impressive 32-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in their last nine games. … With the win over Iowa, the Aviators now sport a sensational 43-17 record in games played Monday-Thursday. They're 24-31 on Friday-Sunday. … Like Las Vegas, the Cubs have been a much better team on the road (30-24) than at home (19-26).
ON DECK: Parker Dunshee (3-4, 5.87) is scheduled to take the mound Thursday in the second game of the series against Iowa, which will counter with fellow right-hander Adbert Alzolay (2-3, 4.70). First pitch for all three games is 5:08 p.m. PDT.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.