On Friday night’s Pacific Coast League playoff game at Cheney Stadium, the Tacoma Rainiers started Wade LeBlanc, who until last month, was pitching for the Seattle Mariners.
The El Paso Chihuahuas countered with Bryan Rodriguez, who had lost his last seven games and had not won since June 27.
Advantage El Paso?
Rodriguez threw five scoreless innings and wiggled out of two bases-loaded jams to help the Chihuahuas win, 7-0, and take a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five series and push the Rainiers to the brink.
One more win by El Paso, either Saturday or a Game 5 on Sunday, if necessary, would lift the Chihuahuas on to the next round and end the season for Tacoma.
“Everybody knows that if we lose, we go home,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “And I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse is ready to go home.
“If they need a motivational speech, it’s a little late. If they need some pampering or a pat on the back, it’s a little late. We’ve won 81 games this year, so we know how to do it. We’ve done it over the course of 144-some games. We can do it. It’s as simple as that.”
In his first start for the Rainiers, LeBlanc gave up four runs (three earned) in five innings. He struck out six, walked one and surrendered six hits. Four of them were for extra bases, however (three doubles and a home run).
Listach said LeBlanc threw a lengthy bullpen on Monday. Still, the 32-year-old left-hander had not pitched in a game since throwing a third of an inning in relief for the Mariners against the New York Yankees on Aug. 24. He was designated for assignment the next day, and after clearing waivers, joined Tacoma on Sunday.
“That’s tough for anybody. I don’t care if you are a hitter or a pitcher, you’re going to be a little rusty,” Rainiers catcher Marcus Littlewood said.
El Paso’s Manuel Margot walked to lead off the game, and LeBlanc rebounded to strike out the next two hitters. But cleanup hitter Austin Hodges doubled to drive in Margo with the first run.
In the second, the lead grew to 4-0 thanks to two doubles, a home run and a costly error by Rainiers shortstop Tyler Smith. Jose Rondon roped a two-run homer to left field and Nick Noonan doubled. With two outs, Smith bobbled Carlos Asuaje’s grounder and threw late to first. Noonan, running all the way from second, slid into home and beat Dan Vogelbach’s return throw from first.
“LeBlanc was up in the zone a little bit in the beginning and a little over the plate,” Littlewood said. “He got better as the game went along.”
El Paso added two runs off reliever Forrest Snow in the seventh on Noonan’s home run and an RBI single by Asuaje, and a run in the ninth off Kraig Sitton.
Rodriguez wasn’t particularly sharp — he walked four and gave up two hits — but he and two relievers were good enough to extend the Rainiers’ hitting woes in the series. Tacoma lost Game 2 in El Paso, 7-1, and has scored twice in the last 24 innings against the Chihuahuas.
“We need to stop waiting for something to happen and make it happen,” Listach said. “I think the guys are pressing a little bit.”
The Rainiers loaded the bases with one out in the second, but Rodriguez struck out Zach Shank and got Littlewood to ground out after shattering his bat. In the fifth, the Rainiers loaded the bases with two outs, but Vogebach grounded out to end the threat.
Littlewood had high praise for Rodriguez’s 94-mph fastball and heavy sinker.
“Honestly, that was one of the best fastballs I’ve seen all year,” Littlewood said. “The ball just jumped. You have to wait a guy like that out and hope to get something up.
“We had some opportunities early but he just got the best of us.”
Although the Rainiers advanced to the Triple-A championship game in 2010, the last playoff game at Cheney Stadium was the previous season — Sept. 10, 2009. The reason was because of demolition at Cheney Stadium that started after the 2010 regular season. The Rainiers played their first-round games at Safeco Field, and all three of their second-round games in Memphis. They lost, 12-6, to the Columbus Clippers in Oklahoma City in the one-game final. … Neither team took batting practice because of late arrivals to the ballpark. Because there are no direct flights from El Paso to Seattle, the Rainiers flew through Las Vegas while the Chihuahuas flew through Phoenix. … The attendance for the game was 3,224. … In the other PCL playoff series, Nashville defeated visiting Oklahoma City, 6-5, on Friday to take a 2-1 lead in their series. … Smith, who made 10 errors this season, has committed three in three games vs. El Paso.
The Rainiers host the Chihuahuas Saturday at 7:05 p.m. in Game 4. Joe Wieland (14-6, 5.43 ERA) is Tacoma’s scheduled starting pitcher. He’s opposed by Dinelson Lamet (0-2, 4.22) for El Paso. The game will be broadcast on 850-AM.