A trip home to Cheney Stadium proved to be just what the doctor ordered for the Tacoma Rainiers, as their opening road trip was marred by rain and early-season struggles as they fell three games to one to the Sacramento RiverCats in their opening series of the season. Though it wasn’t quite the fast start the defending Pacific Coast League Northern Division champs had hoped for, they were able to turn it around on arriving in Tacoma, taking three out of four from the El Paso Chihuahuas in their first home series of the season.
The home opener saw top prospect Tyler O’Neill smash the first of what will likely be many home runs at Cheney for the 21-year old outfield phenom (provided the Mariners don’t require his services too soon) en route to a 7-2 victory. The next day was scheduled to be the return of outfielder Boog Powell from his 80-game suspension that had begun in June of 2016. However, that day’s game was rained out, forcing a doubleheader of two, seven-inning games on Thursday, April, 13, the Rainiers’ second such double-header of the season. Though right-hander Sam Gaviglio pitched admirably in the first game, tossing seven innings of one-run ball, Tacoma was unable to scratch across even a single run against El Paso right-handers Matt Magill and Phil Maton, who combined for a shutout, saddling Gaviglio with a complete game loss in his season debut.
Like the first game of the day, the second also featured a dominant, complete game effort from the Rainiers starter, as Chris Heston spun seven scoreless innings with six strikeouts to silence the Chihuahua bats. Unlike earlier in the day, however, the Rainier offense was able to get it going for a four-run, fifth inning highlighted by RBI doubles from Gordon Beckham, Daniel Vogelbach and DJ Peterson, the last of which drove in both Vogelbach and O’Neill to give Tacoma a 4-0 lead. They were able to scratch across an additional run in the sixth inning behind a walk by Powell and singles by Beckham and Vogelbach, extended the lead to 5-0 and giving Heston enough support to earn him the victory in his Rainier debut and push the club’s record to 3-4.
The final of the four-game set against El Paso proved to be a thriller. A sacrifice fly by O’Neill in the bottom of the first gave the Rainiers a quick 1-0 lead, but El Paso’s Rafael Ortega quickly matched it with an RBI double to score teammate Collin Cowgill, evening the score at 1-1, where it remained as Tacoma’s Dylan Unsworth, Emilio Pagan, Nick Hagadone (a graduate of Sumner High School), Casey Fien, Dean Kiekhefer and Mark Lowe traded zeroes with Dinelson Lamet, Logan Bawcom and Andre Rienzo until the ninth inning. Entering to pitch the bottom of the ninth, El Paso southpaw Keith Hessler struck out third baseman Zach Shank, but then allowed walks to catcher Tuffy Gosewisch, Powell and Vogelbach sandwiched around a flyout by Beckham. This set up a bases loaded, two-out situation for O’Neill. On a 1-2 pitch from Hessler, O’Neill hit a high pop-up into the middle of the diamond right in front of the pitcher’s mound. Thanks to some miscommunication between Hessler, catcher Rocky Gale and third baseman Cory Spangenberg, along with some fortuitous aid from the winds at Cheney, the ball dropped two feet away from Hessler, allowing Gosewisch, who had been going from the moment bat hit ball with two outs, to score the winning run, giving the Rainiers a walk-off victory.
The next day the Rainiers began their three-game series against the Albuquerque Isotopes, as Ryan Weber toed the mound for Tacoma against German Marquez, the No. 69 prospect in baseball and No. 4 in the Colorado Rockies organization, according to MLB.com. Marquez stymied the Rainier offense almost completely, racking up seven strikeouts and allowing just two baserunners. Fortunately, however, his outing was short-lived, as he was replaced after just 3.1 innings by Sam Moll. On the other side of the ledger, Weber didn’t have the flashy strikeout total of his counterpart, fanning just three, but he was just as effective, tossing five scoreless innings.
In the sixth inning, Weber was relieved by Dillon Overton (who began his season with the parent club in Seattle before being optioned to Tacoma in order to clear roster space for Tony Zych’s activation from the 10-day disabled list). Overton continued the trend of dominant Rainier pitching, tossing scoreless frames in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. The Rainiers got on the board for Overton in the sixth inning with an RBI single by Vogelbach that scored Powell, and they were able to tack on a second run later in the inning when Ben Gamel’s sacrifice fly scored Beckham. Carrying that 2-0 lead into the ninth inning, manager Pat Listach handed the ball over to veteran closer Jean Machi, who got the job done despite allowing singles to Pat Valaika and Noel Cuevas, giving Overton the win in his Rainier debut.
With a chance to clinch their second straight series win, the Rainiers turned to right-hander Chase De Jong, a right-hander who was thrown into the fire in a 13th inning save situation in his Major League debut for the Mariners earlier this season in place of Overton (who was on paternity leave) and eventually allowed a walk-off three-run homer to the Astros’ George Springer. Making his second start for the Rainiers, De Jong was up to the task, striking out six over five innings while allowing nothing but a solo home run to Albuquerque's Mike Tauchman. Possessing a 2-1 lead behind Steve Baron’s 2-RBI single, the Rainiers turned it over to the quartet of Ryne Harper, Nick Hagadone, Mark Lowe and Dean Kiekhefer to close out the victory, while adding a third run in the form of a Beckham solo home run in the eighth.
Now at 6-4 for the season and having secured their second consecutive series win, the Rainiers went into Monday morning’s game looking to complete the three-game sweep over the Isotopes. To do so, they gave the ball to veteran right-hander Christian Bergman. Though his start was actually the worst in terms of ERA among a string of strong outings by Rainier hurlers, he was able to post the first quality start of the season for the club, allowing three runs over 6.2 innings. With Bergman keeping the Rainiers in the game, it was up to the Tacoma offense to win it for them. They were up to the task, scoring four runs, all via the home run, with solo shots from Baron and Gamel in the third and sixth innings, respectively, and a two-run shot by DJ Peterson in the sixth. With a one-run lead going into the ninth, Listach turned once again to closer Jean Machi, who locked down his third save of the season, facing the minimum of three batters.
Compared to the opening road-trip, the Rainiers improved both offensively (from scoring 2.3 runs per game to 3.3) and defensively (from allowing 4.0 runs per game to a minuscule 1.1) on their first home stand of the season, during which they posted a 6-1 record to boost their season record to 7-4.
Immediately following the sweep of Albuquerque, the Rainiers were back on the road, heading to El Paso to take on the same Chihuahua team against whom they began their home stand. Gaviglio, facing El Paso’s Magill for the second time in as many starts, looked to build upon his strong outing the last time around, but was unable to do so, allowing four runs over 6.1 innings. While the Rainier offense left the yard twice, with Peterson and Beckham each hitting solo shots (their second and third of the season, respectively), they were able to muster only three runs against the Chihuahuas’ combination of Magill, Kevin Quackenbush, Carter Capps (the Padres hurler on a rehab assignment as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery), Bawcom and Maton, falling to El Paso 4-3 and snapping a five-game winning streak.
Through the first 12 games of the season, the Rainiers pitching staff has been phenomenal, posting a PCL-best 2.44 ERA, with three rotation members (Heston, Bergman and De Jong) holding ERAs below 3.00. On the other side of the ball, the offense has yet to really get it going, posting league-worst marks in batting average, on-base plus slugging, and runs.
The Rainiers will continue their four-game series in El Paso through Friday, April 21, after which they will head to Albuquerque to take on the Isotopes once again, this time in a four-game set. The next game at Cheney Stadium for the Rainiers will be next Thursday, April 27, as they play host to the Sacramento RiverCats for a four-game tilt.
Up with the big club: Infielder Mike Freeman, who began the season in Tacoma before being called up to help fill in for an injured Jean Segura, has received just six plate appearances for the Mariners, but he’s been productive in them, with a single, two walks, zero strikeouts, and a home run (which came in his first and only start of the season). However, due to the hot hitting of utility man Taylor Motter (slashing .321/.387/.786 on the season with three home runs), Freeman will likely be back to Tacoma upon Segura’s return to the lineup (which is tentatively scheduled for this Friday). On the pitching side, Mariner left-hander James Paxton took home American League Player of the Week honors for the week of April 10 with his 2-0 record and 17 strikeouts over 15 scoreless innings during the week. Using his dominant mix of fastball, cutter, and curveball, Paxton has spun 21 scoreless innings to begin the season, the longest such streak to begin the season in Mariner history. After a rough 2-8 start, the Mariners hit their stride with a four-game winning streak before it was snapped by the Miami Marlins’ 8.1 innings of no-hit ball on Tuesday, April 18.
Elsewhere on the farm: Mariner right-handed reliever Steve Cishek, recovering from hip surgery, began his rehab assignment with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. On Tuesday, April 18, he was re-assigned to Tacoma to continue his rehab. After a rough start, the Travelers are in the midst of a three-game winning streak that has brought their record to 6-6. They’ve been led by the extraordinary pitching of Andrew Moore and Max Povse, who have combined to allow just two runs over 37.2 innings, good for a 0.48 ERA. Infielder Chris Mariscal has torn the cover off the ball for the Advanced-A Modesto Nuts, to the tune of a .389 batting average over his 36 at-bats. Nick Neidert has been excellent on the mound for the Nuts, holding a 2.87 ERA over 15.2 innings.