The Tacoma Rainiers were, it seemed, cruising. They led by five runs in the fourth inning of Saturday’s game against the Iowa Cubs. Starting pitcher James Paxton was throwing strikes and little else, and Iowa’s hitters were having a hard time achieving meaningful contact against the Tacoma left-hander.
Then, suddenly, they weren’t.
The Cubs greeted Paxton with four consecutive hits, capped by Juan Perez’s three-run home run, to begin the top of the fourth inning. A two-out, two-run homer off Paxton by Iowa first baseman Daniel Vogelbach tied the score in the sixth.
It wasn’t until the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and the bases loaded, that Rainiers third baseman Luis Sardinas untied it for good.
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Sardinas went 4 for 5 with two RBIs, including a two-out, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth that lifted Tacoma to a 7-6 victory before a crowd of 5,755 at Cheney Stadium.
Tacoma (26-16) has won five consecutive games and sits 10 games above .500 for the first time since late July 2013.
And the Rainiers got there in spite of squandering that 5-0 lead, thanks in large part to Sardinas. He was the sixth Tacoma batter to come to the plate against Cubs reliever Giovanni Soto in the ninth, after Boog Powell struck out looking (and was summarily ejected for throwing his bat in protest of the questionable call), Mike Baxter singled, Stefen Romero walked, Efren Navarro struck out looking and Mike Zunino walked to load the bases.
Sardinas took one called strike before drilling a line drive into center field to end the game.
“Try to find a fastball,” said Sardinas, who is hitting .400 in six games with Tacoma since being optioned to Triple-A. “You don’t want to try too much. Make hard contact, and make it happen.”
He’s been doing that more often than not. Sardinas said playing every day makes him more comfortable at the plate. He hit .154 in 12 games with the Mariners before being sent down.
“His timing’s still great, his swing is still good,” Listach said. “The month and a half he was up in the big leagues not playing, it didn’t affect his swing at all. He kept his swing, and that’s crucial.”
It seemed early that the Pacific Coast League-leading Rainiers would romp to their fifth consecutive victory. They scored three runs with two outs in the bottom of the first inning, the first two on Zunino’s double up the first-base line, then another on a Sardinas single up the middle.
Tacoma made it 5-0 in the third, again rallying with two outs. Navarro and Sardinas each scored when Daniel Robertson laced a triple to center field against Iowa starter Alex Sanabia, who yielded nine hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings (a bases-loaded walk issued in the fifth inning by reliever Gerardo Concepcion to Rainiers designated hitter Dario Pizzano gave Tacoma its sixth run).
Paxton was mostly sharp — 60 of his 86 pitches were strikes, and he recorded seven strikeouts with zero walks — but the Cubs started to catch up to his fastball in the fourth.
“He’s fine,” Listach said. “He’s got to focus on those four good innings he had and not the two not-so-good. The four innings that he put zeroes up, he was phenomenal. His stuff was still there in those other two innings.
“All the hits were on fastballs. … He’s got to be able to throw his secondary pitches for strikes in different counts. Stuff-wise, he was unbelievable. You can’t get into a rhythm where you’re throwing the same pitch to every hitter the same sequence.”
Paul Fry, Jonathan Aro and David Rollins combined to pitch 3 1/3 scoreless innings in relief. Aro struck out four of the five batters he faced, and Rollins pitched the ninth to earn the win.
Tacoma goes for a sweep of its four-game series against Iowa with a 1:35 p.m. game Sunday at Cheney Stadium. Left-hander Brad Mills (0-0, 3.60 ERA) is scheduled to pitch for the Rainiers, and right-hander Drew Rucinski (2-3, 6.18) is slated to start for the Cubs. The game can be heard on 850 AM.