In many ways, the Aviators’ performance in the second game of the 2021 season was vastly superior to the first: They more than doubled their hit total, quadrupled their run total and — one night after scuffling — the bullpen dominated, allowing just five baserunners in five scoreless innings.
Unfortunately, many of the issues that plagued Las Vegas in Thursday’s season opener — chief among them, an inability to deliver key hits with runners in scoring position — cropped up again Friday night at Las Vegas Ballpark. The end result was a 6-4 loss to the Sacramento River Cats before a limited-capacity crowd of 4,891.
Once again, shortstop Thairo Estrada led the way for Sacramento (2-0), belting a fourth-inning, go-ahead grand slam after going 4-for-5 with a homer and four RBI on Thursday. But on this night, it wasn’t really so much what Estrada (or any other River Cats hitter) did so much as it was what Las Vegas’ hitters couldn’t do.
After striking out 11 times, leaving 11 runners on base and going 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position in Thursday’s defeat, the Aviators (0-2) whiffed 13 times, left another 11 runners on base and went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position.
Friday’s offensive struggles were far more maddening for the Aviators than the previous night, when they managed just four singles in a one-sided 8-1 loss. In this one, Las Vegas pounded out 10 hits, drew five walks and benefitted from three Sacramento errors (all in the first inning). On top of that, the leadoff hitter reached base safely in five of the Aviators’ first six innings, and they stranded a runner at second or third base in four of the final five frames.
Despite it all, Las Vegas still had an opportunity to at least tie the game in its final at-bat. After center fielder Luis Barrera capped his 3-for-5 night with an RBI single in the eighth inning to cut Sacramento’s led to 6-4, first baseman Frank Schwindel started the bottom of the ninth with a single. But as Schwindel took a modest lead off first base, Aviators catcher Carlos Perez hit a line drive right to River Cats first baseman Justin Bour, who nonchalantly turned to his right and tagged Schwindel for a double play.
Sacramento closer Dominic Leone then swiftly slammed the door shut, retiring Las Vegas second baseman Edwin Diaz on a pop fly to Bour.
The night certainly started well enough for the Aviators, who needed all of three pitches — and some shoddy Sacramento defense — to match their scoring output from Thursday’s defeat.
Leading off the bottom of the first, Barrera ripped River Cats starter Nick Tropeano’s first pitch to left field for a single. Two pitches later, Barrera stole second, then made his way to third when Sacramento catcher Joey Bart’s throw sailed into center field. After River Cats center fielder Bryce Johnson overran the ball, Barrera sprinted around third — and through the stop sign of Aviators manager/third base coach Fran Riordan — and beat the relay throw home.
On the very next pitch, Pete Kozma reached safely on third baseman Mitchell Tolman’s throwing error, and Jacob Wilson followed with a first-pitch single to right field. But just as it looked like Las Vegas was poised to put up a crooked number to start the game, Tropeano escaped further damage by retiring the next three hitters on a flyout and two strikeouts.
It proved to be a precursor of things to come — in fact, every hitter in the Aviators’ lineup left at least one man on base, with all but Wilson stranding multiple runners.
That’s not to say the night was a complete failure for the home team. In addition to Barrera’s strong performance, Wilson went 2-for-4 and belted the team’s first home run of the season (a solo shot in the third inning); Schwindel went 2-for-5; and designated hitter Greg Deichmann (single, two walks and a run scored) reached base safely in three of his four plate appearances.
Then there was the performance by the bullpen, which kept Las Vegas in the game after starting pitcher Parker Dunshee’s rough outing. After Dunshee departed, four relievers (Domingo Acevedo, Argenis Angulo, Brian Schlitter and Ben Bracewell) scattered four hits and one walk while striking out eight in the final five innings.
GAME NOTES: Dunshee’s control was off all night, as the right-hander walked the first two batters to start the game. He issued another free pass in the second and third, plus two more in the fourth that preceded Estrada’s grand slam. In addition to six walks, Dunshee allowed three hits while striking out five in four innings. … Barrera’s second-inning RBI single snapped the Aviators’ 1-for-19 slump with runners in scoring position. … Dunshee and Tropeano combined for 10 strikeouts through three innings. In all, the two teams have combined to strikeout 47 times in two games.
A HEARTWARMING HOMECOMING: Drew Robinson started in right field for the River Cats the last two nights — a miraculous achievement given where the Coronado High School alum was at this time a year ago.
Robinson made national news in February when he publicly acknowledged he struggled with mental health issues that were so serious he attempted suicide in April 2020, just four months after signing as a minor-league free agent with the San Francisco Giants.
Robinson suffered significant injuries as a result of the suicide attempt, including losing his right eye, and spent months rehabbing both his body and mind. But throughout the process, Robinson — a 2010 fourth-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers who played in 100 major-league games with the Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals from 2017-19 — remained intent on resuming his baseball career.
He spent the entire offseason doing hitting and fielding drills, often at Las Vegas Ballpark, and was invited to spring training by the Giants, who honored his contract and ultimately assigned him to Triple-A Sacramento.
With many friends and family members in attendance the last two nights, Robinson has received a loud ovation each time he’s stepped into the batter’s box. Unfortunately, he’s yet to come through at the plate, going hitless in eight at-bats with seven strikeouts.
It’s certainly not the kind of start to the season Robinson and those rooting for him had desired, but considering how tragic things could’ve ended up a year ago, everyone would agree on this: Robinson’s mere presence in a River Cats uniform is reason enough to celebrate.
ON DECK: The Aviators and River Cats continue their six-game series at 7:05 p.m. Saturday. Right-hander Grant Holmes (0-0, 1.93 ERA in one start with Las Vegas in 2019) gets the start for Las Vegas and will oppose Sacramento lefty Conner Menez (3-1, 4.84 ERA in 11 starts with the River Cats in 2019).
COVID-19 PROTOCOLS REMINDER: Plan on attending an upcoming Aviators game at Las Vegas Ballpark? Remember: Face coverings are mandatory and must be worn at all times, even while seated, unless actively eating or drinking. Fans are also asked to practice social distancing when walking about the concourse and/or at the concession stands. Also, hand sanitizer stations are available throughout the ballpark.
More information on Las Vegas Ballpark’s health and safety guidelines and security restrictions can be found here.
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