MAGIC SUMMER ENDS: Despite struggles, it’s been a ball at Cheney

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It was the sort of summer at Cheney Stadium that will live forever in the hearts and minds of Tacoma baseball fans. Not only did the Rainiers field a fun team, with a cast of characters that seemed to change almost on a daily basis, but they also continued to prove that game nights at Cheney are one of the most family-friendly events happening during the spring and summer. Of course, the fantastic summer weather added to the dreamy atmosphere over off of Tyler Street. Photos by Rocky Ross

They hung in there for nearly the entire season, but it’s finally official. The defending division champion Tacoma Rainiers will not qualify for the Pacific Coast League 2017 playoffs. Though the odds have long been slim, they’ve managed to keep a sliver of hope alive. The “magic number” finally caught up with the Rainiers. That means that the Rainiers’ season will end in Las Vegas on Labor Day. The club will play their final home game of the year on Thursday, Aug. 31, and you don’t want to miss your last chance to see Tacoma baseball for the year.

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The series that finally put an end to any playoff hopes was a four-game set against the Fresno Grizzlies starting on Thursday, Aug. 24. The Rainiers trailed both Reno and Fresno in the standings, and there was going to be no room for error if they were going to spark some magic and sneak into the playoffs.

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The series didn’t start off too well, as Tacoma was held to just three hits by Fresno right-hander David Martinez, who struck out 10 (including seven in a row, one shy of the PCL record) over seven innings. The Rainiers only run came on a solo homer by Mike Marjama in the top of the fifth inning. Meanwhile, Christian Bergman was knocked around for five runs (four earned) in 1.2 innings, and Ryan Garton didn’t fare much better, allowing four in just an inning and a third. Cody Martin was finally able to stop the bleeding, allowing one run over three innings, but by then the game was out of hand at 10-1. Things got a little funky for Tacoma in the bottom of the eighth, as relief pitcher Dean Kiekhefer entered to play center field, and utility man Zach Shank moved from right-field to the pitcher’s mound to show off just how versatile he really is, tossing a scoreless inning with a strikeout.

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The Rainiers were able to even the series the following night against Houston Astros hurler Lance McCullers, Jr., who is rehabbing a back injury. McCullers was clearly rusty, allowing five walks while striking out just one over three innings. Three runs came across against McCullers. Tuffy Gosewisch was the only Rainier with multiple hits (2-4, 2B, 3 RBI, R, SF), though Danny Muno (3 BB), Andrew Aplin and Daniel Vogelbach (2 BB each) both drew multiple walks. Max Povse got off to a rough start, allowing a two-run home run in the bottom of the first, but settled down to toss three scoreless innings in the second through fourth innings. With Povse failing to go five innings, reliever Evan Marshall pitched three scoreless to secure the 7-3 Tacoma win and earn his first victory of the season.

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After nearly allowing a PCL record for consecutive strikeouts two days earlier, the Rainiers again found themselves on the wrong end of a hot pitcher. Rogelio Armenteros took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before allowing a one-out single to Muno. That single went down as the only hit of the night for Tacoma, wasting a one-run performance by the tandem of Andrew Moore (4 IP, 1 ER), Jonathan Aro (1 IP, 0 ER), Tyler Cloyd (2 IP, 0 ER) and Thyago Vieira (1 IP, 0 ER). The rough offensive performance, along with a win by Reno against Las Vegas, put the final nail in the coffin for 2017, officially eliminating Tacoma from playoff contention.

In the series finale against Fresno, the Rainiers were certainly able to bend Grizzly right-hander Trent Thornton, who allowed 10 hits and two walks over six innings. However, they were never quite able to break him, never once posting more than a single run in an inning en route to three runs against Thornton. On the other side, Sam Gaviglio looked tough much of his 4.2 innings, racking up eight strikeouts. The fifth inning would be his undoing after giving up a grand slam to Tyler White. This was a game that was close to having a much different result, but that’s baseball and the Rainiers fell 6-3 to lose the series.

With their playoff hopes dashed, the Rainiers had nothing to do during their final four-game home stand but play spoiler to the Salt Lake Bees. The Bees entered the series just one game ahead of the defending PCL champion El Paso Chihuahuas for the PCL Pacific South Division lead. Tacoma’s offensive woes continued in front of a packed house at Cheney Stadium on the Monday, Aug. 28 opener. The Rainiers were only able to scrape across two runs, one of which came on a passed ball, and the other as a result of a wild pitch moving Muno to third, where he could score on Shank’s sacrifice fly in the tough 3-2 loss.

The Rainiers started off well in the second game against Salt Lake, with Leonys Martin scoring on a shallow fly ball by Gordon Beckham in the first inning. Unfortunately it was all downhill from there, as the Bees rattled off eight unanswered runs on 13 hits. Perhaps taking cues from the Mariners, who just two days earlier had committed five errors in one inning, the Rainiers defense had a difficult night, committing four errors, leading to three unearned runs. The Salt Lake pitching staff, led by starting pitcher Jaime Barria, who tossed five innings, combined to limit the Rainiers to one run and just five baserunners, while fanning 12 Tacoma hitters.

Push for franchise history: Despite playing 34 games with the big club and only 85 in Triple-A, Leonys Martin sits one behind the PCL leader with 25 stolen bases. For comparison, the league leader, Iowa’s John Andreoli, has played in 112 games at the Triple-A level this season (32 percent more than Martin), and has racked up 26 percent more plate appearances. Should Martin outdo Andreoli over the last week and take home the stolen base crown, he would be the first in Rainiers’ history to do so, and the first in Tacoma baseball since Cleon James did it in 1971 for the Tacoma Cubs (the final year of the Tacoma Cubs before the Cubs moved their Triple-A affiliate to Wichita and Cheney Stadium became home to the Tacoma Twins). Coincidentally, the organization James played for when he accomplished the feat, is the same organization that Andreoli, the man Martin will now battle for the same crown 46 years later, currently plays for.

Up with the big club: On Friday, Sept. 1, major league rosters will expand to include the entire 40-man roster, meaning a bevy of minor leaguers will get a shot to show what they can do at the Major League level. The Rainiers scheduled to be added to the roster are right-handed pitchers Dan Altavilla, Gaviglio, Moore, Ryan Garton, Povse, and Vieira, left-hander Andrew Faulkner, and infielders Shawn O’Malley and Vogelbach.

On Wednesday, Aug. 23, the Mariners reached an agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals on a trade for starting pitcher Mike Leake. The right-hander posted a solid 3.12 ERA prior to the MLB All Star Game, but has since struggled, posting a 6.90 ERA over his last seven starts. In exchange for Leake, the Mariners gave up minor league shortstop Raydaer Ascanio.

Elsewhere on the farm: Three members of the Class-A Advanced Modesto Nuts brought home postseason hardware in the California League. Outfielder/first baseman Eric Filia was named the utility player for the postseason All-Star Game, manager Mitch Canham won Manager of the Year, and right-handed pitcher Nick Neidert was named the California League Pitcher of the Year.

Filia sits sixth in the California League in batting average at .309, and leads the Nuts in games, at-bats, walks, batting average and on-base percentage. He has also posted the lowest strikeout rate of any qualified hitter on the Nuts roster.

Canham, in his first year at the helm for Modesto, led the club to the first half title (and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it) with a 39-31 record in the first half. It was the first time Modesto had won the first half since 2004.

Before his promotion to Double-A Arkansas, Neidert posted a 2.76 ERA and 10 wins in 19 starts for Modesto, striking out just over a batter per inning. Though that ERA is the lowest in the California League among hurlers with at least 100 innings, he no longer has enough innings to qualify for the league’s ERA title, due to his promotion to Arkansas.

Modesto will host the first two games of the California League Divisional playoffs beginning Sept. 6, before hitting the road for games 3 and 4. The Nuts will take on the second-half winner of the California League North Division, unless the they win the second half as well (Modesto currently sits just one game behind the Visalia Rawhide). In that case, the Nuts would take on the team with the second best overall record in the division, which would currently be Visalia, though the Stockton Ports are also in the picture.

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