Just as 143 games had not been enough to separate the River Cats and Reno Aces in their Pacific Coast League division race, neither were the first nine innings of Monday’s do-or-die affair at Raley Field.
Only in the 10th inning – when the Aces’ Nick Ahmed hit a soft line drive into center field with two outs and two strikes against River Cats right-hander Jeremy McBryde, scoring Michael Freeman in Reno’s 2-1 win – was the PCL’s Pacific Northern Division title claimed and the league’s final playoff spot decided.
As Daric Barton grounded into a game-ending double play in the bottom of the 10th, the Aces poured out of their dugout, into a celebration on the infield and into the postseason. The River Cats filed toward their clubhouse and the offseason, having missed the playoffs for a second consecutive year for the first time since arriving in Sacramento in 2000.
While chants and cheers from the visiting clubhouse filtered through the walls afterward, River Cats manager Steve Scarsone addressed his team in a quieter setting. Scarsone’s message, said pitcher Matt Buschmann: “This was a really fun team to be on.
“If you looked around, you weren’t going to see a lot of big names on this team, per se. But we ended up winning games in the end, a lot. He said that’s a testament to the group of guys in the locker room playing together, and that he had a lot of fun coaching us up.”
The River Cats entered this final five-game series against Reno leading the Aces by one game in the division. They lost three of the first four, but a win Monday would have left both teams with identical records and given the River Cats the head-to-head edge for the season, sending them to the playoffs.
Neither blinked until the fifth inning, when Sacramento right-hander Arnold Leon gave up a two-out double to Roger Kieschnick, followed by a sinking liner to left field off the bat of Blake Lalli that fell just in front of a diving Shane Peterson for a single, giving the Aces a 1-0 lead.
It stayed that way until the seventh when Reno replaced starter Charles Brewer with Zeke Spruill, and Peterson led off with a drive that one-hopped the wall in right-center field. It was bobbled by Brett Jackson, leading Peterson to try for third, and Chris Owings’ relay throw bounced into the stands, bringing Peterson home with the tying run.
The River Cats put runners on first and second with one out in both the ninth and the 10th innings, but both times rallies were snuffed out by double plays – hit into by Ryan Ortiz in the ninth, and Barton to bring the season to an abrupt end.
The River Cats finished with a 79-65 record that was identical to last year, their first under Scarsone. They played 47 games in 47 days after the All-Star break, going 23-24, and saw several regular contributors – such as Nate Freiman, Andy Parrino and Evan Scribner – called to Oakland, with the A’s locked in a pennant race as well. Still, the River Cats remained in position to fly to Las Vegas for the opening round of the playoffs until the season’s final day.
“Scrappy ... we bled (teams) to death,” Buschmann said. “Just one of those things where late in the game we were never really out of it. It’s a tough lineup to face. They take a lot of pitches; they make you throw strikes. Even in that last inning (Monday), we made it interesting.”
Facing Aces closer Jake Barrett in the 10th, Zeke DeVoss, playing his first career game in Triple A after being called up from High-A Stockton, drew a leadoff walk, and after Nick Buss struck out on a full-count pitch, Alden Carrithers also walked on a full count to put the potential winning run on base for Barton.
“It was intense,” Leon said of the mood in the River Cats’ dugout. “Every single runner we put on base, we wanted it so hard. But baseball is like that.”
Pitcher Zach Neal said the River Cats “kind of just ran into a hot team at the end” in the Aces, who went 21-10 starting on Aug. 1 to erase Sacramento’s four-game lead.
“You look at our record, us and (Reno), two of the best records in all of minor-league baseball, that speaks for itself,” Neal said. “This isn’t the outcome that we wanted on the last day, but I feel like we came out every day and played hard, and that’s all you can ask for.”
The River Cats won division titles in 11 of their first 13 seasons in Sacramento, a model of consistency despite the roster turnover inherent to Triple-A teams. That they’ve now finished second in back-to-back years, Buschmann said, should be viewed through that same prism.
“I think if you look at the team that was winning all those games in the middle of the year, that’s not the team we have here (now),” Buschmann said after his first season in the A’s organization. “So I think that’s more of a testament (to) the good players we had that got a chance to go to the big leagues.
“I think in this case, when Sacramento doesn’t make the playoffs, it’s because guys earned the call-up and got the opportunity to be in the big leagues. And I think overall that’s a good thing.”