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Aviators’ second half chances must begin with ability to start series the right way


Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan (middle) looks out onto the field at Las Vegas Ballpark during the 2021 season. Photo Credit: Terrel Emerson

Starting behind the eight-ball is never good in any capacity whether it be billiards or a six-game series in baseball.


Losing the first game of a series can do more harm than expected in a series that lasts nearly a week, which is something that has only been done in Minor League Baseball since the 2021 campaign.


This year, the Las Vegas Aviators went 3-10 in series openers through the first half of the season.


“Obviously, you want to win every game,” manager Fran Riordan said. “The starting pitcher, you’re expecting to get as deep as they can into the ballgame. You’re expecting your bullpen to come in and do their jobs and keep them off the board.


“You’re not going to win the first game all the time but you can’t let it affect the rest of the series.”


That 3-10 mark in series opening games, it included an 0-6 mark from the friendly confines of Las Vegas Ballpark.


“Up-to-date this year, we stink on Tuesdays,” Riordan said. “Tuesdays are the series opener and we have not performed well for whatever reason on those days. But we’re always trying to perform well in front of our home crowd, especially the great fans that come out and support us every night.”


No matter the outcome, baseball typically begins with starting pitching. In 30 decisions, Aviator starting pitcher went 9-21 through the first half of the season with nearing seven. Moreover, the unit gave up 354 hits in 283 innings pitched.


“I think guys try to be too fine,” pitching coach Bryan Corey said. “Guys are trying to be perfect on the edges of the plate instead of just filling up the strike zone. I played here [at Las Vegas Ballpark] for two years, you can pitch here, you just have to execute. To me, it’s as close to being in the big leagues without being in the big leagues."


Corey also believes the staff has been thrown a curveball along with the rest of the league with the new automated ball-strike system being used in the Triple-A ranks. According to MLB.com, “Here’s how it works:


Rather than using ‘robot umps’ (powered by Hawk-Eye tracking technology) to automatically call balls and strikes, as the AFL experimented with in 2021, the umpires make the calls as usual. Hitters, catchers and pitchers (and only them) then have the ability to challenge a call, which triggers a decisive visual of the pitch on the video board. Each team gets three challenges per game, with successful challenges retained for future use in the game.”


Corey isn’t a fan of the new system.


“The ABS strike zone has played a part in my opinion,” he said. “I think the strike zone is smaller, I don’t think, I believe it is – it’s not the same strike zone they use in the big leagues. If you don’t hit that zone, it’s not a strike.”


However, the relievers on the Las Vegas staff have been a bright spot in comparison, combining for a 25-19 record while dropping the ERA to 6.33.


“When you come in as a reliever you have to be on,” Corey said. “You can’t come in and try to feel it [out]. There are times where they come in and we’re behind but also when you come in and you fall behind in the count now you have to come in the zone. It does make it tougher but it kind of counters those numbers because that doesn’t tend to lead to good numbers.”


On offense, the Aviators averaged just over six runs a game in those 13 series openers. For context, the league leader pushes across 7.2 runs per game with Las Vegas coming in second.


“The answer to win games when you’re giving up a lot of runs, especially in opening games of series, is to score more runs,” Riordan said. “But if you look at our offensive numbers, we’re first in the league in homers, we’re first in the league in extra-base hits, we’re in the top two in [on-base percentage plus slugging]. We’re scoring a lot of runs so I’m not sure if you could just say it’s as simple [as scoring more runs] because I’m not sure how much better we can do.”


In those series opening losses, the Aviators were outscored by more than three runs a game with six losses of three runs or less including five one-run losses. As a result, Las Vegas either split or lost each of the last six series to close the first half of the season. The team’s last winning series came when it took four games against Albuquerque from May 9-14.


With the first half now behind the entire league, Oklahoma City claimed the Pacific Coast League crown, securing a spot in the postseason. A win by the Dodgers in the second half of the season will thrust them right into the Triple-A Championship. On the other hand, a win by the Aviators or anybody else would set the stage for a playoff series between OKC and said team.


“It’s interesting,” Riordan said. “It’s exciting. We didn’t have the best first half but now we have an opportunity in the second half to win the PCL and go to the playoffs. So we talk about it quite a bit as a group, we talk about it quite a bit as a staff about what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish.”


Now that the slate has been wiped clean, Las Vegas won its first series opening game of the second half of the season against Round Rock but back-to-back losses to close the series forced another split.


At the time of this writing, the Aviators are up 1-0 on the El Paso Chihuahuas in a road series after winning a second straight series opener.


“We talk about playing winning baseball,” Riordan said. “We talk about doing the little things right: baserunning, defense, throwing to the right bag, hitting your cutoff man, making the routine plays and doing the little things that it takes to win every single night. So far in the second half we’ve done that.”

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