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Rainiers bats come alive in opener

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With nearly a week in the books for the Tacoma Rainiers, the season has had a different start than their Pacific Coast League Pacific Northern Division championship run of last season. After leading the division from opening day, and all the way through the season until the final out of game 142, the Rainiers have had some inclement weather to deal with coming out of the gates, and the bats didn’t seem to want to heat up until the home town boys returned to the cozy confines of Cheney Stadium.

Apparently, the Rainiers brought the rain with them to Sacramento for their opening series against the RiverCats (the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants). Initially scheduled to begin on Thursday, April 6, that game was canceled due to rain. The following day they were able to begin their season, though they weren't able to complete even one inning before rain struck again, forcing the game to be suspended, to be continued at a later date.

Facing RiverCat right-hander Chris Stratton, second baseman Mike Freeman started off the season with a groundout to shortstop Christian Arroyo. Right fielder Tyler O'Neill, the Mariners’ No. 2 prospect (the No. 33 prospect in baseball, per MLB.com), followed up with a deep drive to center field that was run down by former Rainier (and former Mariner) Justin Ruggiano. Batting third, center fielder Ben Gamel earned the Rainiers their first baserunner of the season with a soft fly ball to center field, but was stranded on first when third baseman Gordon Beckham struck out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the first, right-hander Tony Zych (a Mariners reliever on a minor-league rehab assignment as part of his recovery from biceps surgery) took the mound for the Rainiers. He allowed a leadoff single to second baseman Kelby Tomlinson, who stole second as Zych got Christian Arroyo, the No. 2 prospect in the Giants’ organization and No. 85 in all of baseball, to swing through a two-strike slider for the first out of the inning. After a single and stolen base by third baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang put runners on second and third, Zych reached a 2-2 count against Justin Ruggiano before the rain really started to come down, forcing home plate umpire Travis Eggers to call for a rain delay. After an hour and a half delay, Eggers suspended gameplay, which will be continued from the point of interruption on July 8th in Sacramento.

It wasn’t until Saturday that the Rainiers were able to play their first full game, with Chris Heston toeing the rubber against the RiverCats’ Clayton Blackburn. Though they carried a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the 8th inning behind Tyler O’Neill’s majestic three-run homer, it all unraveled from there for the Rainiers, starting with a pop-up off the bat of Jae-gyun Hwang that was inexplicably dropped by O’Neill, allowing Hwang to reach second base. After a line-drive single by Ruggiano off of Mark Lowe put runners at the corners, O’Neill had yet another defensive lapse, this time allowing a single by Austin Slater to get past him and roll all the way to the wall, allowing both runners to score, tying the game at 5-5, and letting Slater, the go-ahead run, reach third. After a walk by Tim Federowicz, Rainiers manager Pat Listach opted to give the ball to his closer, former World Series champion Jean Machi with one out and runners at the corners. Unfortunately, Machi was unable to strand Slater at third as Orlando Calixte was able to drive him home with an infield single, giving the RiverCats the a 6-5 lead that they would not relinquish, handing the Rainiers the loss in their opener.

The Rainiers were also unable to secure their first win of the season the next day, as Sacramento was able to ride starting pitcher Tyler Beede (the Giants’ No. 1 prospect) and his six innings of one-run ball along with Kyle Blanks’ three-run homer to a 5-1 win.

On Monday, April 10, the Rainiers’ were finally able to pick up their first win of the season in the first game of two shortened seven-inning games that day (the doubleheader necessitated by Thursday’s rainout) behind 5.1 innings of one-run ball from right-hander Chase de Jong, who began the season with the Mariners as a replacement for Dillon Overton, who had been placed on paternity leave. However, they were unable to take the second game of the day, as the RiverCats rode two RBI from Jae-gyun Hwang and four scoreless innings from Ricky Romero to a 4-0 win, winning the series 3-1.

Coming home to Tacoma with a 1-3 record to play their home opener, the Rainiers played the first of a four-game set against the El Paso Chihuahuas at Cheney Stadium on Tuesday, though they were now without infielder Mike Freeman, who was called up to Seattle to replace the injured Jean Segura, who was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a hamstring strain. Tyler O’Neill, who hit his first homer of the year in the season opener in Sacramento, was able to do the same in the home opener, starting off the scoring for the game with a sky-high solo homerun to left field off of El Paso starter Walker Lockett in his first at-bat of the game, giving the Rainiers a 1-0 lead.

Not to be outdone, designated hitter Gordon Beckham followed with a solo blast of his own in the bottom of the third, extending the lead to 2-0. With a run on a sacrifice fly by Dan Vogelbach later in the third and scoring on an error by Chihuahua third baseman Cory Spangenberg, they were able to pull ahead to 4-0 entering the fifth, when they broke the game wide open with three runs in the fifth. Though the Chihuahuas were able to scratch across two runs in the eighth inning off of Mark Lowe, it was too little too late for El Paso, as the Rainiers bettered their season record to 2-3.

The Rainiers will continue their four-game set with El Paso through Friday, followed by a three-game series against the Albuquerque Isotopes to round out their first home stand of the season.

Be sure to mark your calendars for Throwback Weekend on Saturday, May 6, and Sunday, May 7. The Rainiers will be suiting up in their 1966-71 Tacoma Cubs uniforms, with free baseball hats for the early birds. The following day, Tacoma will be suiting up in their 1978 Tacoma Yankees uniforms, with another round of caps given away to the first-comers.

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