SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - Ten days ago, Alfonso Rivas was enjoying a nice first full season playing professional baseball at High Class-A Stockton, California. Then his manager, Webster Garrison, called Rivas into his office to deliver a message: The Oakland A's, the team that drafted Rivas in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, were sending him to Triple-A Las Vegas.
The reason? The A's had just promoted Aviators first baseman Seth Brown, and they needed someone to fill the shoes of the slugger who had amassed team-highs of 37 homers and 104 RBI. That someone was Rivas. And while the 22-year-old from La Jolla, California, may not be as experienced or as polished as Brown, he's proving to be just as productive and - more importantly - just as clutch.
Four days after hitting a key home run - the first of his Triple-A career - to help the Aviators clinch a division title, Rivas delivered another big blast Wednesday night: His three-run shot broke open a tight game and helped lead Las Vegas to a 9-3 playoff victory over the Sacramento River Cats before a crowd of 3,321 at Raley Field.
With the victory - their 12th in 17 games against the River Cats this season - the Aviators now hold a 1-0 lead over Sacramento in their best-of-5 Pacific Coast League Pacific Conference Championship Series.
To be sure, Rivas wasn't the only one responsible for Las Vegas earning just its fourth playoff win since 1992 and its first since 2014. Indeed, the Aviators also got clutch hitting from Eric Campbell (2-for-5, run, two RBI), Mark Payton (2-for-5, two runs, RBI), Skye Bolt (solo home run) and Jonah Heim (two-run single). They also got clutch pitching from starter Daniel Mengden and four relievers, plus a couple of dazzling defensive plays by shortstop Jorge Mateo and a couple of favorable calls from the second-base umpire.
But make no mistake: The biggest moment of the night belonged to a guy who two weeks ago not only had no idea he'd be thrown smack into the middle of Triple-A playoff battle, but that his play would prove pivotal to his new team's hopes of winning a championship.
"It's kind of crazy, looking at where I started the season to where I am now," Rivas said after Wednesday's victory. "But I'm just grateful to be here, and I'm excited to be part of the team and to be in the lineup every single day. Right now, things are going well, but I also know you've got to turn the page and look forward to tomorrow."
Tomorrow would be Game 2 of the best-of-5 series back at Raley Field. And his new manager can only hope tomorrow brings more positive production from Rivas.
"For a kid to come up from High-A ball and step into a playoff race and he's giving us quality at-bats, he's giving us big hits, he's giving us big home runs - it's just so impressive," Aviators skipper Fran Riordan said. "You just can't say enough about his poise and the fact he's embracing the moment and not shying away from anything. It's been a lot of fun to watch."
Speaking of fun to watch, Riordan - who doubles as Las Vegas' third-base coach - got an up-close look at the first baseball thrown in Game 1, as it was ripped by Mateo down the left-field line and into the corner for a leadoff double. Two batters later, Mateo sprinted home with the game's first run when Campbell hit a ground ball to Sacramento second baseman Levi Michael, whose throw to the plate was late.
The 1-0 lead was short-lived, though, as with one out in the bottom of the first, River Cats third baseman Christhian Adames doubled off the wall in right-center and scored easily when center fielder Mike Gerber followed with a single off Mendgen.
The 1-1 tie held up until the top of the third, when the Aviators sent eight men to the plate and scored five runs, all with two outs. The key person in the inning? It actually wasn't Rivas so much as it was second-base umpire Lee Meyers.
The situation: After drawing a five-pitch walk against Sacramento starter Ryan Halstead, Dustin Fowler took off for second base on a straight steal attempt with Campbell at the plate on a 2-2 count. Campbell took the pitch for a ball, and Sacramento catcher Francisco Peña fired a strong, on-the-money throw to shortstop Abiatal Avelino, who dropped the tag on Fowler's arm just as Fowler's foot hit the bag.
Had Meyers called Fowler out on the bang-bang play, the inning would've ended, the score would've remained tied and Rivas would've trotted out to first base for the bottom of the third. Instead, Meyers called Fowler safe, and one pitch later, Fowler trotted home with the go-ahead run on Campbell's bloop single to short center.
"That was huge right there," Riordan said. "It was a 2-2 count and I'm thinking, it's an off-speed count, so I sent him. The throw beat him, but he was able to evade the tag and keep the inning alive. Then Campbell gets the 3-2 base hit and the floodgates kind of open from there."
On the very next pitch after Campbell's single, Payton sliced a double to the wall in left field to score Campbell from first and boost Las Vegas' lead to 3-1. Halstead then walked Dustin Garneau on a 3-2 pitch, but the right-hander put himself in position to get out of the inning when he got two quick strikes on Rivas.
However, Rivas would have the final say in the at-bat, blasting a 1-2 pitch deep over the center-field wall for a three-run homer to give the Aviators a 6-1 advantage.
"I got a really good pitch - a fastball, middle-in," said Rivas, who has now hit safely in all nine games since his callup from Stockton, where he batted .283 with eight home runs and 55 RBI in 114 games. "I was seeing the ball very well in that at-bat, so I felt comfortable even with two strikes. Luckily, I got a pitch over the plate, and I got to do damage with it."
Rivas' home run gave Mengden some breathing room, and the veteran took advantage. Although Mengden gave back a run in the bottom of the third, he retired six of the final seven batters he faced, striking out three of them, including Avelino leading off the fifth inning. That ended up being the final batter Mengden would face, as Riordan opted to turn the game over to his bullpen, starting with his most consistently effective reliever, Ben Bracewell.
It was a logical move, given that Bracewell faced Sacramento five times in the regular season and held the River Cats hitless over 9 1/3 innings. Sure enough, the right-hander extended that hitless streak to 10 innings by striking out Adames and Gerber to end the fifth. Bracewell also would strikeout the side in the sixth - but not before first losing his season-long no-hitter against Sacramento ... and pitching himself into and out of trouble.
Protecting a 7-2 lead, Bracewell allowed three of the first four River Cats to reach safely on two singles and a walk. But he escaped the jam with consecutive strikeouts, allowing the Aviators to breathe a sigh of relief.
It wouldn't be the last sigh of relief, though.
Kyle Lobstein - who also dominated Sacramento in the regular season, allowing just one unearned run on five hits in 10 innings - relieved Bracewell in the seventh. The southpaw retired the first batter he faced, then surrendered a single and two walks around a strikeout to load the bases with two outs. But after Lobstein walked Sacramento right-fielder Joe McCarthy to force in a run, Riordan went to the bullpen again, this time summoning right-hander Kyle Finnegan to face River Cats designated hitter Ronnie Freeman.
Freeman proceeded to hit a sharp groundball up the middle that seemed destined to reach center field, drive in two runs and cut the Aviators' lead to 9-5. Instead, Mateo ranged to his left, made a spectacular diving stop and flipped to second baseman Trace Loher. Once again, it was Meyers at the center of the action on a bang-bang play. And once again, his call went the Aviators' way.
From there, Finnegan and J.B. Wendelken retired six straight batters in the eighth and ninth to lock up the victory.
"Just overall, a really solid game for us," Riordan said. "We did a lot of little things well. I was really happy with the way we pitched, we got key hits with two outs and overall we played good defense."
And now it's on to Thursday, as the Aviators - who tied for the best road record in the PCL this season and are now 7-2 at Raley Field in 2019 - look to take a commanding 2-0 lead back home to Las Vegas for Game 3 on Friday. But Riordan knows his troops have an uphill battle against a Sacramento squad with its back against the wall.
"You have two teams that know that every out matters and every pitch matters," he said "They're going to come out hungry, and they're going to want to protect their turf in Game 2. And we've got to be up to the task."
GAME NOTES: Bracewell (1-0), who had five of the pitching staff's 14 strikeouts, earned the victory, while Halstead (0-1) took the loss. … Mengden scattered five hits and a walk while striking out six over 4 1/3 innings. … Gerber finished 3-for-5 with two RBI for the River Cats. … Both teams struggled with runners in scoring position in Game 1, with Sacramento going 2-for-9 (10 left on base) and Las Vegas going 3-for-10 (five left on base). … Prior to the game, Las Vegas relief pitcher Trey McNutt was optioned to Class-A Stockton (California) to make room on the roster for fellow right-handed pitcher Tanner Anderson, who rejoined the Aviators after clearing waivers after he was designated for assignment on Monday.
ON DECK: Parker Dunshee is scheduled to start Game 2 for Las Vegas opposite fellow right-hander Chase Johnson, a recent callup from Double-A who will be making his first career start for Sacramento. First pitch is at 6:35 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.