There aren’t a lot of teams who routinely shift to four-man outfields against power hitters. The Fresno Grizzlies are one of them. So when Daniel Vogelbach led off the bottom of the eighth with the game tied 7-7, the Grizzlies put their third baseman in left, moved their second baseman 30 feet into shallow right, and sent the shortstop behind second base.
Vogelbach chopped a routine grounder straight to where the second baseman should have been and legged out the infield single. Then the throw to first went wide, and Vogelbach rumbled to second.
Then the throw in from the right field corner itself went wild, and Vogelbach took an uncovered third base for a crucial little-league triple.
“That’s part of the game,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “You open up holes when you do stuff with that.”
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A batter later, Andrew Aplin flew a ball into center for the go-ahead sacrifice fly, putting the dagger on a wild game.
“If you want to play games like that and put a four-man outfield out there and you get burned on it, you live and die with the consequences,” Listach said. “Tonight they died with it.”
Tacoma jumped on Fresno starter Mike Hauschild early, forcing him out after just seven innings and scoring three runs on three hits and two walks. Ross Detwiler couldn’t get the shutdown inning, though, allowing three runs himself in the top of the second.
Adam Law led the Tacoma offense in the beginning, doubling in his first three at-bats — and driving three in three runs in the process — for the Rainiers’ first three-double game of the season.
“I’m looking for a good fastball to hit, but they hung the breaking stuff.” Law said. “I was a little out in front of one of them, but the other two I hit pretty well, and I was lucky to find some holes.”
The Rainiers plated one in the third and three in the fourth to retake the lead, but once again, the Grizzlies came back to tie it.
Then the bullpens took over and traded shutout innings until Vogelbach’s wild ride.
Darin Gillies pitched 1 ⅔ innings after Detwiler, getting four of his outs via strikeout. Dario Alvarez came in for his first action in Tacoma in over a month, needing just 16 pitches to get four outs and earning the win.
“It was good to see him come back in,” Listach said. “He picked up right where he left off.”
Shawn Armstrong struck out the side in the top of the ninth, earning his eighth save of the season.
Just keep walking
When Jerry Dipoto became the general manager of the Seattle Mariners two years ago, he brought with him a philosophy and focus that has become so ingrained in the organization’s culture that they’ve literally printed it on T-shirts: control the zone.
“That’s our organizational philosophy, controlling the zone,” Tacoma Rainiers manager Pat Listach said at Cheney Stadium before Friday night’s game. “Getting in good hitting counts, doing damage when you get in those good hitting counts.”
Nowhere is that philosophy more obvious than in Tacoma. The Rainiers’ eyes this season have been beyond good — they’ve been the best in all of baseball. Tacoma’s 440 walks are the most of any affiliated team at any level, from rookie ball to the big leagues, and the Rainiers are the only team to have eclipsed the 400-walk mark.
Dipoto stepped into the Mariners GM role in the fall of 2015. That season, the Rainiers drew 438 walks and had an on-base percentage of .340. In the two seasons since, the walks have increased; this year Tacoma is on pace to be the only minor league to draw over 600 free passes, and the Rainiers .355 OBP is fourth best in baseball.
“The theory behind it is the more traffic you have on the bases, the more runs you score,” Listach said. “The more runs you score, the more games you win.”
Thursday night was the new approach in a nutshell. Tacoma drew 11 walks for the third time in the past month in its 4-3 win over Fresno. Three starters drew multiple free passes, and only two went walk-less. Third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean led the way with three.
With the Rainiers going deep in counts, Fresno starter Cy Sneed threw 76 pitches and didn’t make it to the third inning. Four relievers combined to go the rest of the way, with each throwing 20 pitches and limiting their availability for the next couple games.
“If you can get the starter to throw a lot of pitches, he gets out of the game, now it sets up the series,” Mejias-Brean said. “If you’re playing five or four games, now you’re into their bullpen and they’re running low, which is a big help for us in the series.”
The blessed period of relative stability for Tacoma has come to an end. With a flurry of moves Friday, the Rainiers find themselves short two starting pitchers and two relievers (one once Nick Rumbelow reports).
Before the moves, the plan was to give Williams Perez another day of rest; now, his start has been moved up to Saturday. Rob Whalen, currently on a rehab assignment in Everett, is scheduled to be back at the beginning of next week. That leaves an open slot Sunday, with another one next Tuesday before Bryan Evans’ next start. As of now, there’s no word whether they’ll be filled by spot-starters from below, or by bullpen days.
“At the end of the day, the guys that come in, we know they’re going to give it their all, they’re going to throw strikes,” catcher Garrett Kennedy said. “You just try to create a relationship as quickly as possible with them, and keep trying to win games.”