FRESNO, CALIF. - Tacoma got an ideal start to Sunday night's game and kept it going all the way to another ideal ending: The Rainiers are the Pacific Coast League's Pacific North Division champions for a second consecutive season.
“It feels great. Good bunch of guys out there,” Rainiers interim manager Jose Castro said after the 9-0 victory at Chukchansi Park. “We were battling with Salt Lake (for the division title), and they gave us a run for it.”
Salt Lake managed to stay in the playoff hunt a few hours longer after topping Reno, 6-3, in an afternoon game that ended prior to Tacoma’s game, but Yusmeiro Petit made that irrelevant by pitching the Rainiers (74-68) to the division-clinching victory.
“Petit did a great job today,” Castro said. “He kept us in the game, and we managed to put up some runs.”
In the big game, having played parts of four seasons in the major leagues with the Florida Marlins and then Arizona Diamondbacks helped the 6-foot-1 right-hander from Venezuela.
“It did a lot,” Petit said in Spanish. “It helped me control the situation, and therefore I could attack the hitters. That’s a good combination, having that command and being able to control the situation.”
Seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball with eight strikeouts and no walks from Petit (4-2) were more than enough for a Rainiers offense that got off to a hot start at the plate.
Tacoma jumped to a 4-0 lead on Greg Halman’s solo home run in the first inning and three unearned runs in the second.
“We went up first – that’s always big,” said Halman, whose team-leading 33rd homer of the season rocketed well over the left-field wall. “Everybody put in a great effort. It’s good to get this done on the road.”
The road had been unkind for Tacoma down the stretch. The Rainiers had lost 13 of 14 road games entering this series, and a 12-inning loss in the opener continued to give Salt Lake hopes of catching Tacoma.
The Rainiers know how that feels.
“Last year, I think we were back seven games, we made some ground and got into the playoffs,” said Castro, who was the hitting coach last season. “It was a great division title (last year) because of being back so many games.”
Now, with one game remaining and no pressure from the specter of missing the playoffs, Castro said he’ll play a few other players today and sit down and plot his rotation for the upcoming playoff series, which begins Wednesday in California against Pacific South champ Sacramento.
An error in the second inning opened up things for the Rainiers on Sunday.
With two outs and one on, Eliezer Alfonzo hit a grounder to Fresno third baseman Jesus Guzman, who let it roll through his legs to extend the inning. Dustin Ackley capitalized with a bloop double that landed just inside the left-field line to bring in two runs, and Matt Mangini hit a blooper to shallow left to bring in another run.
The offense continued to roll in the third, when two more runs scored thanks to a pair of infield singles by Mike Carp and Ackley.
A pair of two-out doubles from Carp and Justin Smoak made it 7-0 in the sixth.
Two walks and two singles plated Mike Wilson and Alfonzo in the ninth to cap the scoring.
Fresno did have runners on in the eighth and ninth innings, but Tacoma turned double plays each time. The game ended with Ackley fielding a grounder at second base. He flipped it to shortstop Tug Hulett, who threw it to Smoak to complete the double play and set off the Rainiers’ celebration.
The Rainiers struck out swinging 12 times, giving them 38 strikeouts in the first three games of this series. Tacoma struck out 16 times in the 12-inning loss Friday night and 10 times Saturday.
Tacoma last won back-to-back division titles in 1981-82. Petit lowered his ERA from 5.50 to 4.85. The Rainiers left 13 runners on base, with at least one each inning. The Grizzlies left four on base. Mangini led off the fourth with a single that hit Fresno starter Henry Sosa (7-8) on his left knee and caromed into right field. Sosa was checked, stayed and finished the inning before getting relieved by Brandon Medders . Fresno has lost nine of its past 10 games, including four to Salt Lake that had helped keep the Bees in playoff contention until Sunday.
Tacoma left-hander Ryan Feierabend (4-7, 5.29) will face Fresno right-hander Waldis Joaquin (1-2, 5.12) to conclude the regular season. Today’s 1 p.m. game will be broadcast live on 850-AM, with Mike Curto providing the play-byplay.