RENO As he watched Daric Barton turn on a breaking ball in the 10th inning of a tied game Saturday night, his team facing the possibility of playoff elimination at the hands of the Reno Aces, River Cats manager Darren Bush had two thoughts.
For the team that led the Pacific Coast League in home runs, none were more important than the two they hit Saturday. Barton's shot to right off of Reno closer Jonathan Albaladejo, the River Cats' first hit since the fourth inning, proved decisive as Sacramento won 4-3 to force a fifth and final game in this opening-round playoff series.
An announced crowd of 5,233, many waving white rally towels, had arrived at Aces Ballpark hoping to see Reno advance to its first PCL Championship Series. Instead they watched deflated in the last of the 10th inning as River Cats reliever Jeremy Accardo retired the Aces' side in order. Game 5 will be played this afternoon.
The River Cats will start young right-hander Sonny Gray, Bush said, against the Aces' 39-year-old veteran Brett Tomko. Since 2006, only six of the 23 Triple-A teams that have fallen behind 2-1 in a playoff series have come back to win. But the River Cats were one of those teams, doing so last year against Reno, and past deficits count for little now.
"We're still alive," Barton said. "Nothing else matters that's happened this whole series. It comes down to one game, and that's what we play for."
Circumstances notwithstanding, Bush said he would manage Saturday the way he had all season, meaning the River Cats would try to manufacture runs later in the game if necessary, but play for the big inning early on.
So when catcher Blake Lalli came up in the second with two on and nobody out, it was not an automatic sacrifice situation. And Lalli hit the first pitch he saw from Reno starter Joe Martinez over the wall in left-center for a three-run homer that gave the River Cats an early lead.
The Aces, though, chipped away until they tied the game in the seventh.
Tyler Bortnick singled off of reliever Arnold Leon, moved to third on a single by Wladimir Sutil and scored on a fielder's choice off the bat of A.J. Pollock, who just beat the throw to first.
"I don't think that deflated us much at all," Lalli said. "We came in and everyone was fine. We were like, all right, we'll just get it right back."
It ensured River Cats starter Brad Peacock would not factor in the decision, though Peacock departed with a lead after five strong innings in a must-win game. It was a gutsy performance by the right-hander, who had not made a start in nearly two weeks after being struck on his pitching elbow by a line drive Aug. 26.
"That was an outstanding job by him," Bush said.
Peacock's lone rough patch came in the fourth, when Josh Bell doubled with one out for Reno's first hit, and singles by Mike Jacobs and Brent Clevlen trimmed the River Cats' lead to 3-2.
They were the kind of manufactured runs that have eluded the River Cats for much of this series. Barton shrugged off any concern, saying, "It doesn't matter how we score 'em." Bush sounded as though, with the season on the line today, he wouldn't mind a rally or two.
"I don't think I've had to wave anybody home all series (coaching third base)," Bush said. "I think it's all been home runs or guys scoring from third, and here it is 2-2. So tomorrow, hopefully, I'll get my arm going."