If this Tacoma Rainiers baseball club has an identity, it’s been the pitching so far this season. While their offense ranks dead last in the Pacific Coast League in both runs and hits, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the PCL Pacific Northern division standings due to their exceptional pitching, which has put together a 3.55 ERA over the first 22 games of the season (all the more impressive given the extremely hitter-friendly environment in the PCL). Four times they’ve held their opponents scoreless. With an assortment of strike hurlers who have combined for the lowest walk total in the Pacific Coast League, the Rainiers have thus far succeeded due to their ability to keep their opponents off of the scoreboard, rather than their ability to rack up the runs on their own.
That reliance on pitching made last week’s rough stretch (44 runs allowed over seven games against El Paso and Albuquerque) all the more concerning. Fortunately, the pitching came back into form over the recent five-game set against the Sacramento RiverCats, allowing just eleven runs (and only five in the first four games of the series).
Leading off the bounce back series by the pitching staff was veteran right-hander Christian Bergman. In a Thursday, April 27 game shortened to five innings due to rain, Bergman was magnificent, allowing just two hits and no walks while striking out six in a complete-game shutout. A former member of the Colorado Rockies, Bergman has been a revelation thus far for Tacoma, posting a 1.96 ERA and earning four wins in as many tries. In the batter’s box, the Rainiers were able to muster just two hits (both singles by Mike Freeman, fresh off a stint with the Mariners as an injury replacement for shortstop Jean Segura), but drew six walks en route to four runs.
The following night saw a different man on the mound in right-hander Ryan Weber, but the results were similar: Weber allowed just one run over five innings. Spotted a 2-1 lead by DJ Peterson’s two-run double, Weber struck out five before turning the ball over to the bullpen. Mark Lowe, Dean Kiekhefer and Dan Altavilla combined to toss three scoreless innings, setting up closer Jean Machi, who allowed a single to former Rainier Justin Ruggiano, but was nonetheless successful in converting his fourth save of the season. The run allowed by Weber was his first of the season, after beginning the season with a streak of sixteen scoreless innings. Earning the win, Weber received his first decision of the season. Machi would be recalled by the Seattle Mariners just a few days later.
With the success of the pitching staff in this series, it can become easy to forget that the Rainiers are capable of explosive offensive innings of their own. They provided a reminder of that early on in Saturday’s contest, putting up six runs in the first two innings. All six runs came via the home run, with Tyler Smith, Dario Pizzano and Mike Freeman each cranking one out of the ballpark. With a nice cushion courtesy of the Rainier offense, Sam Gaviglio pitched adequately, allowing three runs over 5.1 innings of work to pick up his first win of the season. Gaviglio has pitched better than his 1-3 record would indicate, so it was nice to see him finally receive some run support.
The Rainiers pitching staff was able to post another dominant outing on Sunday, with Chris Heston (5.1 IP, win), Nick Hagadone (0.2 IP), Machi (1.1 IP), Dan Altavilla (1.0 IP) and Lowe (0.1 IP, save) holding the RiverCats to five hits and no runs, while Leonys Martin went 3-4 with a run and Freeman continued his hot hitting by reaching base twice in three plate appearances (1-2, BB), giving him a hitting streak of five games and giving the Rainiers a 2-0 victory.
Looking to extend a nine-game home winning streak and complete a five-game sweep of Sacramento, the Rainiers turned to right-hander Rob Whalen on Monday, making his first start as a member of the Mariners organization. Along with Max Povse (currently pitching for Double-A Arkansas), Whalen was acquired in the trade that sent Alex Jackson to the Braves. He pitched 4.2 scoreless innings while striking out four Bees. Trailing 2-1, the Rainiers sent eight men to the plate in the bottom of the 8th, plating four runs with a parade of three singles and two walks to take a 5-2 lead.
Tacoma then turned the ball over to Lowe for the save opportunity. Unfortunately, Lowe’s season-long struggles continued as he allowed four runs over 0.2 innings, surrendering four hits and a walk, and exiting with the bases loaded and the score tied at five runs each, leaving quite the mess for Sumner High School graduate Nick Hagadone to clean up. Hagadone was unable to do so, as his wild pitch to Trevor Brown skipped by catcher Steve Baron, allowing Wynton Bernard to score the go-ahead run. Later in the same at-bat, Hagadone again threw the ball by Baron, but Baron was able to get the ball back to Hagadone in time for the latter to apply a tag on RiverCat outfielder Austin Slater, who was called out by home plate umpire John Bostwick. Slater vigorously protested the call, leading to his ejection. Now trailing 6-5, the Rainiers were unable to get anything going in the bottom of the ninth, going down in order to drop the series finale versus Sacramento.
With the 4-1 series win, the Rainiers keep providing more evidence that, while they are respectable when on the road, with a 4-6 record, they play on another level inside the confines of Cheney Stadium, where they have posted a remarkable 10-2 record, including the nine-game home winning streak they saw snapped on Monday. Tacoma would kick off a four-game road trip against Las Vegas with a 5-3 win over the boys from Sin City that saw the Rainiers knock around 11 hits on the game.
The division-leading Rainiers (15-9) will return to Cheney Stadium on Saturday, May 6 for “Throwback Weekend” and the beginning of an eight-game home stand beginning with the New Orleans Baby Cakes for four games, followed by a four—spot against the Round Rock Express.
Up with the big club: Due to injuries (particularly those to Felix Hernandez and Mitch Haniger), the Mariners have seen an influx of call-ups from Tacoma, including outfielders Ben Gamel and Boog Powell, right-handed starting pitcher Chase de Jong, and relief pitchers Dillon Overton, Machi, and Emilio Pagan. Meanwhile, slugger Dan Vogelbach was sent back down to Tacoma and Rainier infielder Gordon Beckham has been placed on the disabled list.
The Mariners’ play has been hit and miss over the last week, winning two out of three against Detroit, but losing two out of three against Cleveland for a 3-3 record over the seven day stretch. Nelson Cruz led the offense with a scorching week that saw him post a .474 batting average with four home runs and a double while driving in nine runs over the six-game stretch. Hard-throwing left-hander James Paxton continued his domination with seven scoreless innings and nine strikeouts on the road against Detroit.
Elsewhere on the farm: The Double-A Arkansas Travelers have struggled as of late, dropping six of their last eight, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been devoid of excellent individual performances: Ian Miller went 11-24 on the week, pushing his season average all the way up to .359. Andrew Moore turned in another quality outing for the Travelers, tossing six innings of two-run ball on Friday, April 29, giving him a season ERA of 1.76. The Class A-Advanced Modesto Nuts have had better recent results than the Travelers, winning four of their last six. Jordan Cowan continued to swing a hot bat for Modesto, going 7-17 on the week. The 22-year old Cowan, a 37th round pick in the 2013 MLB draft, has posted a .351 batting average on the season, with more walks (14) than strikeouts (12), and four doubles. Though they’ve struggled to get games in due to rain and have dropped four of their last five when they did play, the Single-A Clinton Lumber Kings have seen fantastic performances thus far from Joe Rizzo (.375) and Nick Thurman (.364).