Aviators Fly Past Isotopes 7-5 for Second Straight Win
Ask anyone who has ever played or coached in the offensive friendly Pacific Coast League, and they'll tell you that the only way to win consistently is to have a pitching staff that bends more than it breaks.
Despite their best efforts, the Las Vegas Aviators' hurlers have struggled to adhere to that philosophy over the past month. But if the last two games are any indication, the beleaguered staff just might be headed for a long-overdue positive shift in momentum.
One night after Jake Buchanan and two relievers held the Albuquerque Isotopes to two runs in a 9-2 victory, Tyler Alexander and four of his compadres walked a tightrope but kept their balance long enough to secure Wednesday's 7-5 victory before a crowd of 8,223 at Las Vegas Ballpark.
The Aviators (26-21) staked Alexander to early leads of 2-0 and 6-2, knocking out Isotopes starting pitcher Ryan Castellani in the process. But after Castellani departed in the third inning, Las Vegas' bats went ice cold for the next four innings, while the Isotopes (23-24) began to chip away. But every time it appeared Las Vegas was in danger of losing its lead, relievers Ben Bracewell, J.B. Wendelken, Wei-Chung Wang and Brian Schlitter executed big pitches to wiggle out of nerve-racking jams.
But as much as the bullpen came through when it mattered most, the night truly belonged to Alexander, who not only pitched one of his better games of the season, but he did it on three days' rest.
Back-to-back rainouts in Salt Lake last weekend, followed by consecutive seven-inning makeup doubleheaders, meant one of the Aviators' starting pitchers would be asked to take the ball on short rest. That pitcher turned out to be Alexander, who started the back end of Saturday's doubleheader and suffered the 4-2 loss.
If Alexander was feeling any fatigue from the quick turnaround Wednesday, he certainly didn't show it. The southpaw struck out the side in the first, working around a one-out double and single. After the Aviators scored twice with two outs in the bottom of the first, Alexander retired the Isotopes in order in the second before allowing the tying runs to score in the third on three singles and a groundout. But with one out and the go-ahead run standing on third base, Alexander recorded consecutive strikeouts to end the threat.
Alexander retired the side in order once again in the fourth, this time on just eight pitches. But after giving up a leadoff walk in the fifth, he needed nine pitches to strike out Albuquerque leadoff hitter Yonathan Diaz. Sensing his pitcher was running out of gas after 79 pitches, Aviators manager Fran Riordan summoned Bracewell from the bullpen, costing Alexander a shot at his second victory.
The lack of a win was the only negative on the night for Alexander, who limited the Isotopes to those two third-inning runs on five hits and a walk, while striking out seven. The key stat for the 27-year-old was the one walk, as he had issued a combined seven free passes in his previous two starts.
While Alexander took care of business on the mound, the Aviators' offense got the job done at the plate, taking a 2-0 lead on Seth Brown's two-out RBI double followed by Corban Joseph's RBI single. After Albuquerque tied it in the third, the Aviators quickly regained the lead with four runs in the bottom of the inning.
Sheldon Neuse did the initial damage, crushing a one-out, opposite-field, two-run home run. Then after Joseph singled and Franklin Barreto walked, they both advanced on a wild pitch and came home on Mark Payton's two-run single.
However, the Isotopes cut the 6-2 deficit in half in the sixth on Sam Hilliard's two-run homer over the center-field wall off Bracewell. Then after Wendelken pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh, Albuquerque crept a little closer when Hilliard tripled off Wang and scored on Drew Weeks' single. But like Wendelken the inning prior, Wang preserved the 6-5 lead with a strikeout and flyout to end the inning.
After being limited to a Dustin Fowler single after the third inning, the Aviators' offense finally woke up in time to tack on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Barreto and Payton delivered consecutive singles, and after Tyler Ramirez popped out, Nick Martini slapped a single to center to score Barreto.
That was all the extra help Schlitter would need. One night after pitching two scoreless innings to secure Las Vegas' 9-2 win in the series opener, the right-hander retired the Isotopes in order to pick up his eighth save and give the Aviators another victory - and, just as importantly, the pitching staff another much-needed shot of confidence.
Game Notes: Las Vegas has won consecutive games for the first time since a three-game winning streak from May 8-10 ... Neuse (2-for-4, HR, run, 2 RBI), Joseph (2-for-3, run) and Payton (2-for-4, 2 RBI) all had multiple hits for the Aviators ... In addition to drawing his team-leading 27th walk in the first inning, Las Vegas' Beau Taylor singled in the third to extend his hitting streak to seven games. ... Martini has now hit safely in seven of nine games on his rehab assignment with the Aviators.
On Deck: Right-hander Paul Blackburn (5-1, 4.28 ERA) is scheduled to take the mound for the Aviators on Thursday in the third game of the team's brief four-game homestand. The Isotopes will counter with right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez (3-3, 6.80), with first pitch on $2 Beer Night set for 7:05 p.m.
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