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Play ball: Aviators set for takeoff in 2021 season opener

May 5, 2021

For the first time in nearly 20 months, Triple-A baseball returns to Las Vegas Ballpark as the new-look Aviators host Sacramento Back on September 8, 2019, the Aviators and Sacramento River Cats squared off in the rubber match of their best-of-5 Pacific Coast League Southern Conference Championship Series at Las

For the first time in nearly 20 months, Triple-A baseball returns to Las Vegas Ballpark as the new-look Aviators host Sacramento

Back on September 8, 2019, the Aviators and Sacramento River Cats squared off in the rubber match of their best-of-5 Pacific Coast League Southern Conference Championship Series at Las Vegas Ballpark.

Nobody could’ve known it at the time, but when the River Cats recorded the final out of a 7-3 series-clinching victory that day, they didn’t just close the curtain on the Aviators’ wildly successful inaugural season, they effectively shut the gates to Las Vegas Ballpark for nearly 20 months.

Now, after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 Minor League Baseball season, the Aviators are set to return to their home stadium for the first time in more than 600 days when they open the much-anticipated 2021 season at 7:05 p.m. Thursday. Their opponent? None other than the Sacramento River Cats.

Obviously, much has changed since the last time these longtime Pacific Coast League rivals squared off. For starters, they’re no longer part of the Pacific Coast League, which was abolished as part of Major League Baseball’s dramatic restructuring of the minor leagues this past winter. Now, Las Vegas and Sacramento compete in what’s known as Triple-A West, a 10-team league comprised of two five-team divisions.

Also, because the pandemic delayed the start of the season by a month, this year’s Triple-A campaign has been reduced from 140 games (70 home, 70 road) to 120 (60 home, 60 road). Another departure from tradition: The Aviators and River Cats on Thursday will kick off a six-game series, which will be the norm throughout the 2021 MiLB season, when teams will battle the same opponent for six consecutive days, followed by an off day every Wednesday.

Then, of course, there are the big changes in the stands (reduced capacity; social distancing and face-covering requirements; cashless transactions, etc.) and another big one on the field (bases have been increased from 15 square inches to 18 square inches, which MLB hopes will create more action on the basepaths).

But by far the biggest change Aviators fans are likely to notice this season has to do with the team’s roster, particularly as it pertains to everyday players. Gone are top prospects and 2019 fan favorites Franklin Barreto, Skye Bolt, Seth Brown, Eric Campbell, Dustin Fowler, Jonah Heim, Corban Joseph, Jorge Mateo, Sean Murphy, Sheldon Neuse, Mark Payton and Beau Taylor.

In 2019, those 12 players — all of whom are now either with the Aviators’ parent club, the Oakland A’s, or playing for another organization’s major-league or Triple-A team — accounted for:

• 86% of the team’s 1,487 hits

• 87% of the team’s 959 runs

• 86% of the team’s franchise record-setting 250 home runs

• 88% of the team’s 926 RBI

• 88% of the team’s 314 doubles

• 92% of the team’s 50 triples

• 100% of the team’s 82 stolen bases

With that “dirty dozen” leading the charge, the 2019 Aviators ranked first or second in the PCL in hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, batting average and OPS.

“We obviously had a lot of guys we knew could hit and who had a little bit of power,” says Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan, who returns for his second season as the team’s skipper. “But to have that kind of production from so many players was a little surprising. It turned out to be a pretty lethal lineup, and it’s a lot of production to have to replace.”

The good news: Riordan believes the newest crop of Aviators have the ability to pick up where the 2019 squad left off — that is, continue to make opposing pitchers’ lives miserable. He points specifically to veterans such as catchers Francisco Peña and Carlos Perez, and infielders Jacob Wilson, Pete Kozma and Frank Schwindel, as well as talented prospects like infielder Edwin Diaz and outfielders Buddy Reed and Cody Thomas.

“Offensively, we’re going to have a nice combination of guys who have some significant big-league experience and guys who have had a lot of success coming up in the minor leagues but haven’t yet been given their chance in Triple-A,” Riordan says. “We might not get the exact same production we got in 2019, but we’re going to be pretty close.”

While the 2021 Aviators will feature plenty of new faces spread across the diamond, the opposite is true on the mound. No fewer than 10 pitchers on the team’s opening-day roster spent all or part of the 2019 season with Las Vegas, including starters Paul Blackburn (team-leading 11 victories) and Parker Dunshee (90 strikeouts in 92 innings pitched), as well as relievers Ben Bracewell (3.13 ERA, 70 strikeouts in 72 innings over 41 appearances), Brian Schlitter (team-best 11 saves) and Miguel Romero (4-1, 3.96 ERA, 81 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings over 45 appearances).

Blackburn and Dunshee will anchor Las Vegas’ five-man rotation, which also includes youngsters Grant Holmes, James Kaprielian and Brian Howard.

“Our staff has a lot of potential,” Riordan says. “The starting rotation will feature guys who have good stuff and — most importantly — can throw strikes. The fact that many of them are knocking on the door of the big leagues has me optimistic about our chances to consistently get outs in a league where that’s often difficult to do.”

While Riordan is optimistic about the Aviators’ chances to make some noise in 2021, he’s also realistic about the prospects of matching the success from two years ago, when the club went 83-57, finished with a single-season, franchise-best .593 winning percentage and won a division title.

Of course, following a year without competitive baseball, just getting back on the field and playing meaningful games in front of fans is victory enough, at least for now.

“The coaching staff and players are absolutely thrilled to be back in Las Vegas,” says Riordan, the 2019 PCL Manager of the Year. “These guys worked very hard at the [Oakland A’s] alternate site over the last month, and they’re so excited to get the chance to once again play actual games in front of fans at Las Vegas Ballpark.”

Indeed, it’s been a long 600-plus days since the Aviators last took the field in their dazzling new stadium. So when the players and coaches jog out of the dugout Thursday and the home-plate umpire yells “Play ball!” to officially kick off the 39th season of professional baseball in Las Vegas, there figures to be a collective sigh of relief that will reverberate throughout Las Vegas Ballpark:

Finally, the wait is over!

HERDING THE CATS: While Sacramento got the best of the Aviators in the 2019 PCL playoffs, Las Vegas dominated the regular-season series, going 11-5. In fact, Las Vegas won the first eight meetings, including sweeping the first three games ever played at Las Vegas Ballpark by the combined score of 26-6.

The River Cats, who are the top affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, went 73-67 in 2019 and easily won the PCL Pacific Northern Division by seven games. After taking down Las Vegas in the first round of the playoffs, Sacramento went on to sweep the Round Rock Express for the PCL crown, then defeated the International League’s Columbus Clippers 4-0 in the Triple-A Championship Game.

HERE’S THE PITCH: Kaprielian will start the opener for Las Vegas on Thursday. The right-hander spent most of 2019 at Double-A Midland (Texas), but made one regular-season start for the Aviators, allowing a run on six hits with no walks and six strikeouts in four innings. Kaprielian also started Game 5 of the PCL playoff series against Sacramento.

Following Kaprielian in the Aviators’ rotation will be fellow right-handers Dunshee (4-5, 5.38 ERA in 19 starts with Las Vegas in 2019), Holmes (0-0, 1.93 ERA in one start), Blackburn (11-3, 4.34 ERA in 22 starts) and Howard (0-1, 13.81 ERA in four starts).

COVID-19 PROTOCOLS: Plan on attending a game this season 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.

FROM THE FLIGHT DECK: Capacity at Las Vegas Ballpark has been reduced to 50% to start the season. While opening Night is sold out, a limited number of tickets are available for the Aviators’ remaining 11 games in May. Visit the team’s ticketing page to learn more. … The River Cats-Aviators series that continues through Tuesday, May 11. First pitch for all games is 7:05 p.m., except for Sunday’s contest, which starts at 12:05 p.m. … Thursday’s season opener will be the first of 10 Aviators games that will be broadcast live on YurView via Cox Cable (Channels 14 and 1014). All Aviators games will be streamed live on MiLB.TV (subscription required) and broadcast locally on Raider Nation Radio AM-920. … A fireworks show will follow Friday’s game, while Tuesday’s contest will see the Aviators transform into the Las Vegas Reyes de Plata (Silver Kings) for the first time.