Aviators, River Cats Set for First-Round PCL Playoff Series

Las Vegas looks to continue season-long dominance of Sacramento in best-of-5 series that starts Wednesday

Several Las Vegas pitchers put up sensational numbers against the Sacramento River Cats this season, but none more so than Ben Bracewell. In five relief appearances, the right-hander pitched 9 1/3 hitless and scoreless innings.

By Matt Jacob / Las Vegas Aviators | September 4, 2019 5:41 AM

If past performance truly is indicative of future success, then the Aviators should have an easy go of it in their opening-round playoff series against the River Cats that begins Wednesday at 6:35 p.m. at Raley Field in Sacramento.

 

Not only did Las Vegas go 11-5 against the River Cats this season - tying their best record against any Pacific Coast League opponent - but they outscored Sacramento by 40 runs (114-74). To understand just how dominant the Aviators were against their rivals to the north, consider that they scored 63 runs in winning each of the first eight head-to-head clashes; the River Cats scored 74 in all 16 meetings.

 

And while Las Vegas prevailed by four or more runs seven times, Sacramento's largest margin of victory was five runs (a 12-7 win in 10 innings). Aside from that, its other four wins in the season series were by scores of 1-0, 7-5, 4-3 and 4-3. Also, the Aviators - who finished tied with El Paso for the best road record in the PCL - made themselves right at home at Raley Field, going 6-2 and outscoring the River Cats 49-32.

 

Add it all up, and it's clear that this best-of-5 battle for PCL Pacific Conference supremacy between two affiliates of Bay Area teams - the Oakland A's (Las Vegas) and San Francisco Giants (Sacramento) - figures to be a one-sided laugher. Except for one not-so-little issue: Six Aviators' hitters responsible for producing nearly 44 percent of those 114 runs against Sacramento are no longer on the roster.

 

Infielders Franklin Barreto, Seth Brown and Sheldon Neuse, as well as catcher Sean Murphy, are all with the Athletics, while infielder Corban Joseph (Giants) and outfielder Nick Martini (San Diego Padres) were recently claimed by major-league clubs after being released by Oakland to free up 40-man roster space.

 

Together, those six former Aviators feasted on Sacramento pitching, batting .338 (94-for-278) with 10 homers, 48 RBI, 50 runs scored, 23 doubles, three triples and 19 walks. By comparison, the six Las Vegas players on the current roster who have experience against the River Cats this season - infielders Jorge Mateo and Eric Campbell; outfielders Dustin Fowler, Skye Bolt and Mark Payton, and catchers Jonah Heim and Dustin Garneau - are batting a combined .278 (75-for-272) with 11 homers, 49 RBI, 52 runs, 16 doubles, four triples and 17 walks.

 

Also, it's important to note that these clubs wrapped up their season series way back on June 24 at Las Vegas Ballpark. In other words, after two-plus months of callups, demotions and injuries, neither squad looks like it did the last time they squared off. In fact, the Aviators have two pitchers on their staff and an infielder who were at Double-A Midland (Texas) as recently as Thursday, and two other infielders who spent the bulk of the season at Class-A Stockton (California).

 

That said, it's difficult to ignore some stark numbers that, on paper anyway, certainly favor the Aviators. Putting aside the one-sided nature of the head-to-head rivalry, Las Vegas finished the regular season 83-57, good for the second-best record in the PCL, just one game behind Round Rock (84-56). On the other hand, Sacramento finished 73-67, which was good enough to win the PCL's Pacific Northern Division by seven games, but wouldn't have been good enough to win any of the league's other three divisions, as the River Cats would've finished 10 games behind Las Vegas, 11 games back of Round Rock and two games behind Iowa.

 

Also, while the Aviators were 18 games above .500 on the road, Sacramento was four games under .500 at home (33-37). True, the River Cats had an edge going the other direction, but it was a slim edge: They were 40-30 on the road, while the Aviators went 39-31 at Las Vegas Ballpark.

 

And if you glance at the PCL stat sheet, you'll find that Las Vegas finished in the top two in virtually every offensive category, including runs (959), hits (1,487), home runs (250) and OPS (.902). Conversely, Sacramento placed seventh in runs (825), sixth in hits (1,360), fourth in homers (228) and eighth in OPS (.841).

 

One positive for the River Cats? They posted slightly better pitching numbers than the Aviators in several categories, including ERA (5.04 to 5.64), WHIP (1.42 to 1.46), home runs allowed (189 vs. 224), walks (465 vs. 482) and strikeouts (1,270 vs. 1,163).

 

The flip side to that, however, is that the 11 pitchers currently on the Las Vegas staff who have faced Sacramento this season have completely stifled the River Cats. Those 11 hurlers (four starters, seven relievers) are a combined 7-1 against Sacramento with a 2.32 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and a 68-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Two relievers in particular - right-hander Ben Bracewell and Kyle Lobstein - have been virtually unhittable, allowing zero runs, five hits (all by Lobstein) and seven walks (all by Bracewell) while striking out 19 over 19 1/3 innings.

 

Alas, while numerous season-long statistics are on the Aviators' side, history certainly is not: Not only is the Las Vegas franchise just 19-29 in 10 previous playoff appearances, but it has lost five consecutive postseason series. The last time the franchise celebrated a series win was in 1988, when the Las Vegas Stars went 6-1 en route to their second PCL Championship in a three-year span.

 

If the Aviators are going to be the team to break that 31-year title drought, they'll have to match those six victories over the next two weeks. And it all starts Wednesday when two familiar foes pick up where they left off 10 weeks ago, with one side looking to continue its winning ways and the other looking to flip the script.

 

PITCHING MATCHUPS: As expected, Daniel Mengden will get the call for Las Vegas in Game 1 Wednesday, while Sacramento will counter with fellow right-hander Ryan Halstead. Mengden split his time between the big leagues and Triple-A this season, going 5-2 with a 4.85 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) for Oakland and 4-3 with a 4.22 ERA in 13 games (10 starts) with the Aviators.

 

One of those four victories with Las Vegas came in Mengden's lone start against the River Cats this season, and it was a gem: On opening night at Las Vegas Ballpark back on April 9, the 26-year-old Houston native pitched six flawless innings, yielding just one unearned run, one hit and two walks while striking out what would turn out to be a season-high nine, leading the Aviators to a 10-2 victory.

 

Meanwhile, Halstead spent the majority of this season pitching in relief at Double-A Richmond, where he went 3-6 with a 3.53 ERA in 33 games (six starts). His only appearance of the season with Sacramento came back on August 3, when he went 4 2/3 innings and allowed three runs (none earned) on three hits with one walk and two strikeouts, not factoring in the decision of a 10-9 loss at Round Rock.

 

In fact, the first three starters slated to go for the River Cats in the series have spent little to no time with Sacramento this season. Scheduled Game 2 starter Chase Johnson was 1-2 with a 7.64 ERA in seven games (three starts) with the River Cats, while Game 3 starter Brandon Lawson spent all season at Richmond, going 5-9 with a 3.70 ERA in 24 starts.

 

Las Vegas will counter Johnson with fellow right-hander Parker Dunshee (4-5, 5.38 ERA) in Game 2, while southpaw Jesus Luzardo (1-1, 3.19 ERA) will match up against Lawson when the series shifts to Las Vegas for Game 3.

 

First pitch for the first two games in Sacramento is 6:35 p.m., while Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 (if necessary) on Saturday will start at 7:05 p.m. at Las Vegas Ballpark. If necessary, Game 5 will also be at Las Vegas Ballpark with a 12:05 p.m. first pitch.

 

TRANSACTION ACTION: The Aviators received a couple of roster reinforcements for the playoffs. Catcher Jonah Heim - who spent most of the second half of the season in Las Vegas - was recalled from Double-A Midland, while right-handed pitcher Tanner Anderson returns to the squad after clearing waivers following his release from Oakland's 40-man roster.

 

To make room for Heim, infielder Edwin Diaz, who was promoted to Las Vegas last week, was optioned back to Midland. A decision as to whose spot on the roster Anderson will assume has yet to be made.

 

NOTEWORTHY: While the Aviators had three players (Murphy, Barreto and pitcher Paul Blackburn) promoted by the A's on Monday when major-league rosters could expand from 25 to 40, the River Cats lost six players: pitchers Burch Smith, Conner Menez, Andrew Suarez and Kyle Barraclough, as well as outfielder Chris Shaw and catcher Aramis Garcia. … The player on the Aviators' active roster who had the most success against Sacramento this season was Mateo. The fleet-footed shortstop appeared in all 16 games versus the River Cats and went 28-for-76 (.368) with three homers, 10 RBI, 16 runs, five doubles, three triples and two stolen bases. He had at least one hit in 14 of the 15 games in which he had a plate appearance and recorded multiple hits 10 times. … Fowler also put up solid power numbers against Sacramento, hitting four home runs, driving in 15 and scoring 12 runs while going 18-for-69 (.261). … Conversely, Payton - who was one of the Aviators' most productive hitters all season - struggled in limited action against Sacramento, going 3-for-27 with two doubles, four runs and three RBI. … Tickets for Games 3, 4 and 5 at Las Vegas Ballpark are on sale now. Visit AviatorsLV.com for details.

 

Catch every Aviators playoff game on NBC Sports Radio 920-AM, and follow us on Twitter @AviatorsLV.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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