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Tacoma home for big weekend

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It's a fact of life in Triple-A baseball that problems at the Major League level trickle down to the farm teams. That's exactly what’s happened recently as the Mariners’ pile of pitching injuries (four of the five men slated to have begun the year in Seattle’s rotation missed their most recent start due to injury) has led to an influx of new faces in the Rainiers’ pitching staff. Gone to Seattle (for now) are Christian Bergman, Dillon Overton, Chase de Jong and Jean Machi. In their stead, Andrew Moore, Rob Whalen, Michael Rivera and others have joined the cast of characters for the boys of Cheney. At times it feels the only constant in the Rainiers’ pitching staff has been pitching coach Lance Painter. Despite the fluidity of the faces that comprise it, the results have remained consistently strong, as the Rainiers have held their opponents to one run or less three times in the last week, for a grand total of twelve times on the year.

In his last start before his call-up to Seattle, Bergman continued his excellence for Tacoma, tossing six innings of two-run ball and fanning four, while allowing just four hits on Tuesday, May 2. Meanwhile, second baseman Mike Freeman (2-3, 2 RBI, BB) continued his hot hitting for Tacoma with another multi-hit, multi-RBI outing, extending his hitting streak to seven games. Right fielder Zach Shank also contributed a pair of RBI to lead Tacoma to a 5-3 win over the Las Vegas 51s. With the win, Bergman joined Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros, Ervin Santana of the Minnesota Twins, and Jordan Humphries of the Single-A Columbia Fireflies as the only hurlers in professional baseball with five wins on the season.

Toeing the rubber in game two against Las Vegas was Ryan Weber, who is also having an solid season for Tacoma. Weber matched Bergman's effort from the previous night, allowing two runs over six innings. He didn't receive much in the way of run support, however, as the Rainier bats were stymied by Vegas right-hander Ricky Knapp, who fired 7.2 innings while surrendering just one run before turning the ball over to closer Chasen Bradford. Bradford was able to successfully get the final out of the eighth with the potential tying run on base for the Rainiers in the form of Daniel Vogelbach. Entering the ninth with a 2-1 lead, Bradford served up a 1-1 pitch to DJ Peterson who crushed a game-knotting home run. Ryne Harper tossed a scoreless ninth for Tacoma to send the game to extra innings, where he also tossed a scoreless 10th. In the 11th inning, Peterson led off with a single, putting the potential go-ahead run on base. On the next pitch from Vegas righty Erik Goeddel, Dario Pizzano laced a double down the right field line to score Peterson and give the Rainiers a 3-2 lead. Tacoma would add two more runs and hold on for a 5-2 victory.

Looking to lock up a series win in a four game set versus the 51s, Tacoma sent Sam Gaviglio to the mound to face off against Kevin McGowan. The former proved superior, tossing 7.2 innings and allowed just one run, striking out five en route to his second win of the season. McGowen would fail to last through the third inning, allowing two runs, five hits and a walk over 2.2 innings. The Rainier lineup continued to punish the Vegas bullpen, against which they tallied six runs to lock up the series win in an 8-1 rout, setting up a potential series sweep. Freeman (3-5, 2B, 3B, 3 RBI, 2 R) was excellent once again, falling a homer short of the cycle, extending his hitting streak to nine games and earning a promotion to the Mariners level the next day. Also promoted was catcher Tuffy Gosewisch, who replaced demoted Mariner catcher Mike Zunino. Zunino, who struggled out of the gate for Seattle, to the tune of a .167 batting average, got a breather for his first few days down in Tacoma.

Tacoma was unable to capitalize on the opportunity for a road sweep on Friday, May 5, seeing off nights from both the pitching staff (Chris Heston allowed four runs over five innings, walking three and striking out two; Mark Lowe continued to struggle mightily this season, allowing two runs in an inning of work, and Lane Ratliff allowed three runs over one inning in a forgettable Rainier debut) and the lineup (just seven total hits and one run), falling 9-1. Seth Mejias-Brean (2-2, 2 BB, R) provided the lone bright spot for Tacoma, posting his fourth consecutive multi-hit game (spanning his first four games in a Rainier uniform), reaching base safely in all four plate appearances and scoring the only run of the night for the Rainiers. Mejias-Brean has been on a tear since joining the Rainiers, batting .391 over 23 at bats, walking as often as he’s struck out (three) and hitting three doubles. He was acquired for cash from the Cincinnati Reds organization.

Returning home to Cheney Stadium to take on the New Orleans Baby Cakes in the first of an eight-game home stand, the Rainiers sent Nate Bannister to the mound to make his Triple-A debut. A 28th rounder in the 2016 MLB draft, Bannister missed the entirety of the 2016 season with a UCL strain in his pitching elbow. He began the 2017 season (and, by extension, his pro career) with Advanced-A Modesto, going 2-1 with a 5.96 ERA across five outings. He was magnificent in his Rainier debut, spinning 6.2 shutout innings with six strikeouts, allowing just three hits and zero walks, but was saddled with a no decision when the Rainier lineup was unable to scratch across a run against the Baby Cakes’ tandem of Kelvin Marte (3.2 IP), Javy Guerra (2.1 IP), Chris O’Grady (3.0 IP), sending the ballgame to extra innings in a scoreless tie. After scoreless outings from Bannister (6.2 IP), Ryne Harper (1.1 IP), and Dean Kiekhefer (1.0 IP), it was Tacoma right-hander Casey Fien who allowed the first and only run of the game, allowing three hits, including an RBI single to Peter Mooney. The Rainiers went down in order in the tenth, falling 1-0 in their second extra inning game of the week.

Rainier pitching saw a rare misstep on Sunday, as Whalen, in the second start of his Rainier career, surrendered four runs and was tagged for five hits, four walks and a hit batter over 3.1 innings. However, the Rainier offense was up to the task, getting Whalen off the hook by lighting up Baby Cakes’ starter Justin Nicolino for six runs, eight hits and two walks over 5.2 innings. Each bullpen allowed a run, and Harper got the final four outs to lock down his first save of the season in the 7-5 win. Leonys Martin (1-4, HR, 2 RBI) and Tyler Smith (3-4, HR, 3 RBI) each hit two-run bombs off of Nicolino.

In the thirds game against New Orleans, Rainier right-hander Ryan Weber got the pitching staff back on track with seven scoreless innings. The Baby Cakes’ Stephen Fife was solid on the other side of the ledger, but the Rainiers were able to scrape across two runs (one earned) against him on RBI doubles by Boog Powell and Vogelbach. The Rainier bullpen was every bit as fantastic as Weber, as Kiekhefer and Emilio Pagan combined to retire six of the seven batters they faced (the seventh reaching on a fielding error by shortstop Smith). Kiekhefer earned his fourth hold of the year, while Pagan tallied his second save.
Tacoma would put on a hit parade in their fourth matchup with New Orleans on Tuesday, May 9, and they needed every bit of it. Rainiers’ batters knocked around 11 runs on 14 hits to counteract the Baby Cakes’ eight runs on 11 hits. It was a nail-biter in the ninth, as New Orleans put across four runs to tighten up a game that was a mostly a blowout. With the win, Tacoma moved to 20-11 on the season, good enough for first-place in the Northern Pacific Division of the Pacific Coast League.

The Rainiers (who now boast the second-best record in the Pacific Coast League) will continue their home stand starting on Thursday, May 11, against the Round Rock Express (14-9) for a four-game set.

Up with the big club: As alluded to in the opening, the Mariners pitching staff has been ravaged by injuries, with Felix Hernandez (shoulder), James Paxton (forearm), Hisashi Iwakuma (knee) and Drew Smyly (elbow) - all expected to begin the season in the rotation - missing their most recent starts due to injury. As a result, the Mariners have seen a ton of innings from hurlers who began the season in Tacoma. Over a seven-day span, 24 of the Mariners 60 innings pitched (40%) have come from hurlers who have spent the majority of the season to this point with the Rainiers. Despite the need for reinforcements, the Mariners have gone 4-2 in that stretch with a 3.30 team ERA (the former Rainiers have combined to go 1-1 with a 3.75 ERA, though that improves to 1-0 with a 2.11 ERA if you exclude Emilio Pagan, who’s had a rough start to his big league career, allowing five earned runs over 2.2 innings). Shortstop Jean Segura has continued to rake for Seattle, batting .368 with three homers, five steals, 13 RBI and 18 runs over 20 games on the season, and hitting exactly .400 since his return from the 10-day disabled list due to a hamstring injury.

Elsewhere on the farm: The Double-A Arkansas Travelers have hit a rough patch as of late, losing their last six games while scoring just seven runs in that stretch. Despite the team’s struggles, Chuck Taylor has been on fire for Arkansas, as he’s reached base safely in all fifteen games since failing to do so in his first game of the season. He’s recorded at least one hit in all but one of those games, and is currently riding an eleven game hitting streak. Slashing .342/.469/.544 with nine doubles, 16 walks and just 16 strikeouts in 98 trips to the plate, Taylor has been one of the top hitters in the Texas League, posting top-six marks in batting average, slugging percentage, and on base plus slugging, while leading the league in on base percentage. That OBP mark is not only best in the Texas League, it’s the third best in all of Double-A, behind only Kevin Kramer Aneury Tavarez of the Eastern League, and eighth in all of affiliated baseball, trailing Ramon Flores of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, Chris Roberson of the Triple-A Mexican League, Jake Thomas and Marcus Wilson of the Single-A Midwest League and Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper.

The Class-A Advanced Modesto Nuts have fared much better than the Travelers, winning six of their last eight to boost their record to 19-12; best in the California League. They’ve been led by the hot hitting of Braden Bishop (.331 batting average), Gianfranco Wawoe (.324) and Jordan Cowan (.313), who rank third, seventh and ninth, respectively, in batting average in the California League. Right-handed pitcher Reggie McClain has been dominant on the mound for Modesto, ranking fifth in ERA (2.21), third in innings (36.1) and sixth in strikeouts (31).

The Single-A Clinton LumberKings have continued their season struggles thus far, losing six of their last seven to fall to the third worst record in the Midwest League at 11-19. The standout individual performer for Clinton has been reliever Ronald Dominguez, who has posted a 2.11 ERA, a 0.70 WHIP and seventeen strikeouts over 21.1 innings in nine appearances.