Neuse Continues Torrid Hitting, But Aviators Fall to Sacramento
If you believe the calendar, Friday was the first official day of summer. But if you had the chance to touch the bat of Aviators third baseman Sheldon Neuse, you'd swear summer started about 10 days ago. That's because the Louisville Slugger that Neuse has been swinging lately is hotter than a dashboard that's been baking in the July sun for eight hours.
Forget about the fact that Neuse went 4-for-5 in Friday night's 12-7, 10-inning loss to the Sacramento River Cats ... and extended his hitting streak to eight games ... and recorded his seventh multi-hit game in those eight contests ... and hit his 11th home run of the season (extending his career high) ... and smacked his 19th double.
Impressive as all those accomplishments are, they pale in comparison to this stat:
Since June 13, Neuse has picked up 23 hits in his last 33 official at-bats, which equates to a cool .697 batting average. Toss in five walks over the eight-game stretch, and the 24-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas, has reached base safely in 28 of his last 38 plate appearances. To put the torrid run in perspective, consider this: Neuse has more hits in his last three games (11) than he's made outs in the last eight games (10).
The secret to Neuse's hot streak? If you ask him, it simply boils down to executing the principles of Hitting 101.
"I'm feeling comfortable in the box, getting pitches to hit and not missing them," Neuse said prior to Friday's game. "Early on in the year, that was my biggest [problem] - I was fouling those pitches off or swinging through them. It was almost to the point of becoming a defensive hitter. Right now, I'm figuring out a way to square those pitches up more often ... and it's turned into a pretty good couple of weeks."
Talk about understatements. During his eight-game tear, Neuse has three home runs, 10 RBI, 11 runs scored and has raised his batting average a staggering 55 points, from .270 to .325.
On Friday, he essentially was the only Aviators player to solve River Cats starting pitcher Conner Menez. After striking out in his first at-bat against Menez, Neuse scalded the southpaw's 1-2 pitch over the left-field wall to give Las Vegas its first run in the fourth inning. When he returned to the batter's box in the sixth, Neuse attacked another 1-2 pitch from Menez, lacing a double just inside the left-field line.
That gave Neuse half of the four hits the Aviators tallied against Menez, who otherwise dominated, racking up 12 strikeouts while allowing just one walk over 5 1/3 innings. After Menez departed, Neuse continued his assault against the Sacramento bullpen, ripping singles in the eighth and ninth innings to make him 7-for-9 in the first two games of this series and 11-for-13 over the past three contests.
Neuse's final hit came in the midst of the Aviators' four-run rally in the bottom of the ninth that erased a 6-2 deficit.
"He's controlling the strike zone," Aviators manager Fran Riordan said when asked to assess Neuse's current offensive onslaught. "You look at every at-bat he's had over the last month, he's locked in. He's not giving anything away or going outside the strike zone, and he's fouling off pitches he needs to fight off. Then once he finally does get a good pitch in the zone, he's not missing it."
A second-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals in 2016, Neuse was acquired by the Oakland A's as part of a five-player trade in July 2017. He entered this season with a .283 batting average in 288 professional games, steadily progressing up the minor-league ladder. But it was last year, his first in Triple-A when he played for the Nashville Sounds, when Neuse learned his biggest hitting lesson.
Ironically enough, it came during a prolonged slump, one that lasted the entire first half of the season. But Neuse worked hard to make the necessary adjustments to get out of the funk and ended up hitting .321 after the All-Star break. Thanks to the knowledge he gained during that season-long process in Nashville, Neuse has been able to quickly right the ship during those times this season when he's scuffled at the plate.
"Now it's not a two-week [slump]," he said. "It's just a couple of games or maybe even a series, but then I'm able to figure out what's going on and turn it right back around. The biggest thing is just comfortability.
"I hope to never go through [what happened last year] again, but that was one of the biggest learning points of my career to this point - going through it and figuring out how to get out of it while staying positive through those [tough] times."
While the incredible eight-game run he's currently riding has done wonders for Neuse's numbers, the fact is he's been solid all season. So much so that with a week left in June, he's already set career highs in home runs (previous high was nine); his 54 RBI are one off his career high set last year (and good enough to rank 10th in the Pacific Coast League); and his 19 doubles are seven shy of his career high. And with 82 hits, he's on pace to shatter his personal best of 131 established last year.
In other words, Neuse (pronounced NOISE-y) is making enough noise to be heard all the way in Oakland. But if he's having any thoughts about closing in on his first big-league opportunity, he's not about to admit it.
"Whatever happens, happens. All that's out of my control," he said. "I'm just playing ball and focusing on the day to day, on what I can do to get better here. If that time comes where I do get the call, of course I'll be ecstatic, but you can't [waste energy] on that. All I can do is perform here and let the rest take care of itself."
RALLY FALLS SHORT: One night after spotting the River Cats a 10-1 lead and rallying for a miraculous 11-10, walk-off victory, the Aviators nearly pulled off another come-from-behind stunner Friday. Trailing 6-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Las Vegas sent 10 batters to the plate and scored four times to even the score.
Catcher Jonah Heim delivered the big blow - a one-out, three-run homer - and three batters later, outfielder Nick Martini's RBI single tied it. After first baseman Seth Brown struck out, designated hitter Chris Hermmann walked to load the bases for Skye Bolt, who started the inning with a strikeout. However, Bolt couldn't deliver the game-winner, flying out to shallow left field to send the game to extra innings.
Given a reprieve, Sacramento took full advantage in 10th, doubling its scoring output by scoring six runs off Las Vegas reliever Ryan Dull to put the game away. Although the Aviators pushed a run across in their half of the 10th on Heim's RBI double, shortstop Jorge Mateo struck out to end it.
GAME NOTES: Neuse, Heim and outfielder Dustin Fowler each had a home run and double for Las Vegas. ... Aviators hitters struck out a season-high 21 times, with Mateo and Brown (five apiece) accounting for nearly half of them. ... Mateo did single during the ninth-inning rally to extend his hitting streak to eight games. He's now hit safely in 60 of his 69 games this season, including 21 of 23 since May 27. ... After two consecutive stellar starts, Parker Dunshee struggled Friday night, giving up five runs on five hits and three walks in just four innings. ... Las Vegas is now 10-3 this season against Sacramento, outscoring the River Cats 86-59 in those 13 games. ... Friday's crowd of 10,205 marked the 27th sellout in 37 games at Las Vegas Ballpark.
TRANSACTION ACTION: Aviators fans who attend Saturday's game against Sacramento are in for a treat, even beyond the Finn the Bat Dog bobblehead that will be given out to the first 2,500 fans through the gates. Jesús Luzardo, who is the top prospect in the entire Oakland A's farm system and the second-ranked left-handed pitching prospect in professional baseball, will make his Triple-A debut.
The 21-year-old Luzardo was competing for a spot in the A's starting rotation during spring training until suffering a left shoulder strain. In two rehab starts with the Class-A Stockton Ports earlier this month, Luzardo yielded just one run on six hits over seven innings. Most impressively, he struck out 11, didn't walk a batter, and his fastball topped out at 99 mph.
Luzardo will take the roster spot of Aviators relief pitcher J.B. Wendelken, who was promoted to Oakland on Friday.
ON DECK: The Aviators and River Cats continue their five-game series Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Luzardo is scheduled to square off against Sacramento's Andrew Suarez (3-5, 5.29) in a battle of southpaws.
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