No title defense for Rainiers, but hope lives for Seattle

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Story by Josiah Rutledge – Photos by Rocky Ross

The Rainiers entered 2017 with loads of promise. They boasted young, talented prospects like Tyler O’Neill and Daniel Vogelbach, to go with veteran producers like Gordon Beckham, Christian Bergman, and Jean Machi. Coming off a division title in 2016, this team looked poised for another playoff run. While the team rolled to a strong 41-30 record within the cozy confines of Cheney Stadium, fortunes would change dramatically when the team hit the road, and it cost them.

On the road, the team posted a paltry 25-46 record, winning only two series, while being swept twice. That gave them a .352 winning percentage on the road, the third worst in the Pacific Coast League. Only Round Rock posted a larger split between home and road winning percentages. Had they posted the league average winning percentage on the road, it could have made all the difference and kept them in the hunt. Whenever it seemed they were about to get on a roll and gain ground, they would head out on a road trip and momentum would stall.

Tacoma also struggled from a high amount of player turnover, due to injuries both to their own roster and at the Major League level. Beginning in April, the Rainiers would go on to rack up a grand total of 302 player transactions, an average of nearly two per day. They saw a whopping 54 pitchers take the mound, of whom only three made 15 or more starts with Tacoma, and none made 20. On the other side of the ball, they sent 37 different hitters to the plate, of whom only five had enough at-bats to qualify for the PCL batting title race. That turnover didn’t get much better in late July, when the roster was picked apart by trades which saw O’Neill and Boog Powell, among others, shipped off and new players like Mike Marjama and Marco Gonzales brought in. The lack of continuity after the MLB trade deadline likely contributed to the club’s 11-21 record after it.

To their credit, the Rainiers were tough to officially put down. Despite their poor road play and lack of continuity, Tacoma wasn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention until Saturday, Aug. 26. Since that point, it’s seemed as though some players had finally run out of gas, and were perhaps counting down the days until the end of this long season. Tacoma won just one game (for a 1-7 record) after being eliminated.

That single win came in dramatic fashion in 2017’s final game at Cheney Stadium, against the Salt Lake Bees. Looking to avoid a sweep, Sam Gaviglio (4 IP) and Andrew Moore (2 IP) each allowed a single run, and the Rainiers struggled out of the gate offensively, posting just two hits in the first seven innings to fall behind 2-0. In the bottom of the eighth, things turned around for Tacoma. First baseman Joey Wong reached on a fielding error by shortstop David Fletcher, and Ian Miller singled to put the tying run on base. Both runners moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch by Brandon Pinder, putting the tying run in scoring position. After an RBI groundout by Zach Shank, Beckham slapped a line drive into left field to tie the game at two. Right-hander Dan Altavilla tossed a scoreless top of the ninth for Tacoma, giving the Rainiers the chance to walk-off in their home finale. That’s exactly what they did, as Marjama drew a leadoff walk, and beat the throw from right-fielder Ramon Flores to score on Andrew Aplin’s triple. Instead of being swept in their final home series, the Rainiers were able to leave fans with a smile and a bounce in their step as they left Cheney Stadium with the walk-off victory.

Hopefully, none of those fans paid attention to the final road series, however, as the Rainiers were swept in a four game series by Las Vegas, marking the first time Tacoma had been swept by Vegas since 2002.

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A week ago, the Rainiers gave their end-of-season awards. Bergmann, who led the team in wins, starts, innings, and quality starts, earned the Rainiers’ Pitcher of the Year Award. Tuffy Gosewisch, who threw out 31.7 percent of attempted base-stealers (third best in the PCL) won the club’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Vogelbach took home two pieces of hardware, earning both Offensive Player of the Year and the Community Service Award for his work with Metro Parks and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. Vogelbach paced the Rainiers in games, hits, runs, doubles, runs batted in, total bases, walks, and on base percentage.

Up with the big club:

The Mariners are certainly a team of streaks. Seattle closed out the month of August with a five-game losing streak against the Yankees and the Orioles, which seemed to put their playoff hopes in major jeopardy. Up next for the Mariners would be the Oakland A’s, who dropped all three games in the Seattle sweep. The wins breathed new life into the Mariners’ playoff hunt, only to have them come crashing down again following two straight losses to the division leading Houston Astros, beginning on Monday, Sept. 4.

As of this printing, the Mariners (69-70) trail the Los Angeles Angels (72-67) by three games for the second, and final, wild card spot in the playoffs.

Starting on Friday, Sept. 8, the Mariners will have a chance to gain some ground quickly, as the Angels will come to Safeco for a three game series, followed by a four-game set with the Texas Rangers. A sweep against the Angels could be huge for the Mariners, as they attempt to snap the longest current playoff drought in Major League Baseball. Nelson Cruz, who has hit 40 or more home runs every year since 2014, the longest active streak in baseball, could see that streak come to an end if he’s not able to get hot for the last few weeks of the season. Cruz currently has 31 long balls to his name in 2017, which puts him on pace for 36 homers. Over the last weekend, the Mariners top two hurlers, Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, each took steps forward on their road back from injury, as both tossed pain-free bullpen sessions. Both Hernandez and Paxton are on track to return by the middle of this month.

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