By any metric applied - record-shattering attendance figures, team and individual accomplishments, big-league callups, postseason awards - the Las Vegas Aviators' inaugural season at brand-new Las Vegas Ballpark was a resounding success. Unfortunately, that season has ended without the franchise claiming the ultimate prize: a Pacific Coast League championship.
For the second straight day at Las Vegas Ballpark, the Aviators' bats were silenced by a couple of unlikely starting pitchers, and for the second straight day, they fell to the Sacramento River Cats, this time dropping an 7-3 decision in Sunday's winner-take-all Game 5 of the PCL Pacific Southern Conference Championship Series before a crowd of 5,034.
With their victories Saturday and Sunday - against a Las Vegas squad that had won 13 of 19 previous meetings this season - the River Cats rallied from a 2-1 series deficit and advanced to the PCL Championship Series, where they will face the Round Rock Express.
On the other hand, exactly one week after celebrating a PCL Pacific Southern Division title by dousing each other with champagne and beer in a raucous clubhouse, the Aviators somberly retreated to that same clubhouse, packed their bags and said goodbye to each other for the final time in 2019.
If there was any solace in the series- and season-ending defeat, it's the fact the River Cats ripped off the proverbial Band-Aid quickly, as three of their first five batters hit first-inning home runs off Aviators' starting pitcher James Kaprielian to build a quick 4-0 lead - a lead they would never come close to relinquishing.
"Obviously, we got behind the 8-ball early," Aviators manager Fran Riordan said in his office after the game. "But the guys battled, and we had some opportunities later in the ballgame to get back into it and I thought we were making some headway in the middle of the game. We just couldn't get that big hit.
"But you look across the field at the Sacramento dugout and there are a lot of good players who had a lot of good performances [in this series]. So you have to tip your hat to them. We just weren't able to catch up today."
One of the PCL's top offenses all season - one that tallied 140 runs against the River Cats in the team's first 19 meetings - the Aviators' bats were mostly silent in the final two games of the opening-round playoff series. Much of the credit for that goes to two unheralded River Cats pitchers, Carlos Navas and Caleb Baragar. Navas, who was 0-5 with a 5.09 ERA in 15 appearances with Sacramento in the regular season, held Las Vegas hitless through 4 2/3 innings in leading his team to Saturday's 5-3 victory in Game 4.
Then on Sunday, Baragar made his second-ever Triple-A start and didn't allow a hit through the first three innings. Navas and Baragar each pitched five innings and allowed a combined one run on three hits with five walks and 11 strikeouts.
In all, Las Vegas produced just four runs and nine hits in Games 4 and 5.
"Sacramento just really bared down when they needed to make pitches when we had situations to get that big hit," Riordan said. "They did a really good job. That's just part of the game."
After scoring a first-inning run in each of the first two games at Las Vegas Ballpark, the River Cats once again grabbed a quick lead Sunday - only this time, they didn't stop at one run. After Abiatal Avelino hit his second leadoff homer in the past three games, Kaprielian - who, like Baragar, was making his second career Triple-A start - struck out Mike Gerber.
But two pitches later, the River Cats' lead increased to 3-0 as Cristhian Adames ripped a first-pitch line-drive single to right, and Joe McCarthy followed with a first-pitch, two-run homer over his team's bullpen in right-center. Then Zach Houchins followed with a moonshot home run to left that traveled even farther than McCarthy's.
Suddenly, five batters and 19 pitches into the game, the Aviators trailed 4-0 before even taking their first swing. And when they finally did get their chance to swing the bats, they couldn't do much of anything against Baragar until Eric Campbell's leadoff double in the fourth. Campbell would move to third on a flyout, but would go no further as Baragar struck out Dustin Garneau and retired Cameron Rupp on a flyout.
Thanks to relief pitcher Tanner Anderson - who replaced Kaprielian with two outs in the first inning and allowed just two baserunners over 3 1/3 scoreless innings - the Aviators were still in the game. However, after Matt Harvey took over for Anderson in the fifth, Sacramento quickly plated two more runs on an RBI triple by Adames, who later scored on a wild pitch to make it 6-0.
Jonah Heim finally got the Aviators on the scoreboard with a solo homer in the bottom of the fifth, but the River Cats immediately got the run back in the top of the sixth, and once again it was courtesy of a Harvey wild pitch.
Trailing 7-1 and with Baragar out of the game, Las Vegas mounted its first sustained rally in the bottom of the sixth. Facing Sacramento right-hander Tyler Cyr, Mark Payton drew a one-out walk, and Garneau and Rupp followed with consecutive RBI doubles to pull the Aviators to within 7-3. After Heim followed Rupp's double with a four-pitch walk, Cyr was yanked in favor of southpaw Steven Okert.
The move paid off when Las Vegas third baseman Mikey White grounded Okert's second pitch to his counterpart Adames, who stepped on third and tossed to first for an easy double play. Not only did that end the inning and the Aviators' rally, it essentially ended their season, as Okert and fellow River Cats relievers Dan Winkler and Enderson Franco retired the final nine Las Vegas hitters who came to the plate.
"This is what you want is to play a series-deciding game at home, but they just came out today and got on some fastballs early, and sometimes there's just nothing you can really do," said Campbell, a 32-year-old veteran who has been among the Aviators' leaders all season. "I think that 4-0 early deficit kind of deflated us. We tried to make a couple of runs, but they made pitches to get some groundballs, so you have to give them credit. I thought they had the best bullpen all year."
Now that bullpen, and the entire River Cats franchise, gets a chance to win its fifth PCL championship since 2003. At the same time, Las Vegas continues to search for its first playoff series win since claiming the 1988 PCL title.
Despite that ongoing drought, nobody associated with the Aviators - particularly their team leader and their skipper - would claim that this was anything but a wildly successful season.
"A lot of the guys have a lot to be proud of," Campbell said. "Some of the guys on this team had ridiculous years - years that either got them called up or set themselves up for the future. So all of us should leave the clubhouse pretty happy about that."
Added Riordan: "I couldn't be more proud of our players or more proud of the way they competed, the work they put into their craft, the work ethic they showed on a day-to-day basis and what they were able to accomplish. When you look at the [franchise and individual] records we were able to set in what has been a long history [of Triple-A baseball] in Las Vegas, those accomplishments don't go unnoticed.
"We sent a lot of guys up to the big leagues for the first, second or third time who are making contributions in Oakland, and that's something that's definitely a huge part of what we're trying to accomplish here. Then what our fans meant to us and how they supported us by coming out to the ballpark every day - it was just a magical season, something I'm proud to have been a part of and something I'll never forget."
GAME NOTES: Following the game, Riordan said that pitchers Daniel Mengden and Jesús Luzardo will be promoted to the parent Oakland A's. It will be Mengden's third stint with the A's this season, while the 21-year-old Luzardo - who is Oakland's top pitching prospect - will be a big-leaguer for the first time. … While Harvey struggled out of the bullpen Sunday, the other three Aviators' relievers (Anderson, Trey McNutt and Ben Bracewell) combined to hold Sacramento to just two hits and one walk over 7 1/3 scoreless innings. … After hitting eight home runs in the first three games of the series, the Aviators had just one (Heim's solo shot Sunday) in the last two. … Payton went 0-for-3, snapping his 12-game hitting streak. Still, the outfielder led Las Vegas with a .421 batting average in the series and finished the year (regular season and playoffs) by recording multiple hits in 10 of his final 13 contests.
ON DECK: Sacramento and Round Rock will open the best-of-5 PCL Championship Series on Tuesday in Round Rock, Texas. Meanwhile, the Aviators will return to Las Vegas Ballpark on April 9, 2020, when they host the Albuquerque Isotopes in the first of 70 home games.
For 2020 ticket information, click here.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.