If the Aviators' players lined up single file and 100 random fans were asked to pick out the power hitters in the bunch, odds are Mark Payton would be the last guy selected every single time. After all, at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, the veteran outfielder looks more like an old-school slap hitter than he does, say, Aaron Judge.
But as your parents taught you long ago and Payton showed the last two nights at Las Vegas Ballpark, it's never wise to judge a book by its cover.
One night after clubbing three home runs to help his team to a 13-9 victory over Salt Lake, Payton went deep twice more Sunday as the Aviators pounded the Bees 11-4 before a crowd of 8,472. With the win, the Aviators (54-40) won the series 3-1, improved to 13-5 in their last 18 games - including 7-1 in their last eight at home - and pulled to within 2½ games of first-place El Paso in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern division.
And Payton was as responsible for the last two victories as anyone. In addition to belting five homers in seven at-bats, he collected nine RBI, scored six runs and even picked up a walk. After collecting a pair of two-run homers and a solo shot Saturday, the 27-year-old from Orland Park, Illinois, hit a two-run bomb in his initial at-bat in the second inning and another two-run blast in his final plate appearance in the eighth.
As if five homers in the span of 24 hours wasn't impressive enough, consider the fact that Payton didn't get an at-bat in the first two games of the Salt Lake series, which was preceded by the three-day All-Star break. That means he went five days without swinging a bat against live pitching, which is the kind of layoff that can mess up a player's swing.
Clearly, that wasn't the case for Payton, who now has a career-high 15 home runs in 72 games. His previous high was 10 in 123 games back in 2016 when he split time between Class A, Double A and Triple A.
"The All-Star break refreshed the mind and refreshed the body, so it was kind of like a fresh start," he said after Sunday's performance. "Luckily, I've gotten off to a good start in the second half [of the season]."
He certainly isn't alone in that regard, as virtually every Las Vegas player came out of the All-Star break swinging some seriously lumber. In taking three of four from Salt Lake, the Aviators compiled 47 runs and crushed 17 home runs, four of which came in Sunday's series finale. Besides Payton's two big flies, Dustin Fowler went deep - part of a 4-for-5, three RBI night - and Nick Martini cracked a three-run homer.
Las Vegas - which continues to lead the entire Pacific Coast League in batting average, runs scored, doubles, triples and RBI - scored in double digits in each of their three victories over the Bees (40-53).
"We have 13 really good hitters, [a mix of] guys with proven track records and young guys who have a tremendous amount of talent who are figuring it out along the way and doing really well," said Aviators manager Fran Riordan. "It's a really deep lineup that can hurt you in any batting-order spot. The numbers bear that out."
Added Payton matter-of-factly: "It's not an easy lineup to pitch against."
That definitely proved to be the case once again Sunday.
Fowler got things started in the first inning with an opposite-field homer to left field, his 16th of the season, off Bees starter Matt Ball. Salt Lake evened things up in the second on Kaleb Cowhart's solo homer to center field, but Payton broke the tie in the bottom of the inning with his first two-run blast that landed on the grass berm beyond the right-field wall.
Once again, the Bees quickly battled back when Jared Walsh cracked his third homer of the series, a two-run shot that tied the game at 3-3. The score remained that way until the bottom of the fourth, when the Aviators plated two more runs against Ball, courtesy of Fowler's RBI double and Martini's sacrifice fly.
Salt Lake got one of those runs back in the top of the fifth thanks to Taylor Ward's leadoff home run that landed on the pool deck in center field to cut Las Vegas' lead to 5-4. But that was as close as the Bees would get, as the Aviators broke the game open with a four-run sixth inning, highlighted by Martini's three-run homer off Nick Tropeano (2-3).
Fittingly, it was Payton who capped the scoring and put a nice bow on the series with his second two-run homer, this one easily clearly the fence in dead center field - a majestic shot that proved once more that strength comes in all sizes.
STILL STREAKING: Several Aviators extended hitting streaks Sunday, led by Payton, who has now hit safely in a season-high 12 straight games. Sheldon Neuse (2-for-4, walk) also stretched his hitting streak to eight games, while Martini (1-for-3, walk) boosted his streak to six in a row.
During their respective streaks, Payton is 21-for-46 (.457) with five doubles, three triples, six home runs, 13 runs and 15 RBI; Neuse is 15-for-36 (.417) with four home runs, 11 RBI and nine runs; and Martini is 16-for-33 (.500) with four doubles, three homers, seven RBI, 11 runs scored and five multi-hit games.
Also, Corban Joseph singled twice Sunday and has now hit safely in 29 of his last 32 games going back to June 1, during which he's 55-for-116 (.474) with 14 doubles, two triples, five homers, 30 RBI and 39 runs. He also 17 multi-hit games over this stretch versus just nine strikeouts.
GAME NOTES: The Bees and Aviators combined for 26 home runs in the series. In fact, eight of Sunday's first nine runs, including the first six in a row, came via the long ball. … In his second start with Las Vegas since being promoted from Double A, Naile lasted 4 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on eight hits and two walks. The right-hander struck out four and threw 51 of his 79 pitches for strikes … Kyle Lobstein (2-2), who relieved Naile in the fifth inning, pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up the victory. … A scary moment occurred with two outs in the top of the third inning, when Payton's hard line drive up the middle struck Salt Lake relief pitcher Jake Jewell on the right side of his head. Payton was retired on the play for the final out, and Jewell somehow was able to stay on his feet. Bees trainer Brian Reinker raced to the mound to check on the right-hander, who walked off the field on his own but was removed from the game as a precaution. The pitch to Payton was the only one Jewell threw in the game. … Walsh finished the series 8-for-14 with three homers, nine RBI and five runs.
ON DECK: The Aviators will fly to Tacoma on Monday and begin a four-game series against the Rainiers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. In their only previous meeting this season back in mid-May, the teams split four games at Las Vegas Ballpark, with Las Vegas winning two low-scoring contests (4-1 and 4-2) and Tacoma taking two high-scoring affairs (10-6 and 9-7).
First pitch for Monday's series opener is 7 p.m., with the Aviators' Parker Dunshee (2-4, 6.27 ERA) slated to oppose Tacoma's Mike Wright (0-1, 2.66) in a clash of right-handers. Tuesday's game is a matinee affair that starts at 11:35 p.m., with the games Wednesday and Thursday set for 7 p.m.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.