MEMPHIS, TENN. – So the Rainiers won't get to play at home during the Pacific Coast League championship series with Memphis. So?
They simply hung the old “Home Sweet Home Run” shingle early Tuesday night with blasts by Justin Smoak and Mike Wilson, and quickly felt right at home with a 5-3 opening game victory over the Redbirds before 4,041 at AutoZone Park.
The Rainiers’ usual diet of long balls was supplemented by a 12-strikeout pitching performance from 21-year-old starter Blake Beavan and relievers Andy Baldwin and Dan Cortes.
“We got the home runs which helped us early, and our pitchers were really strong, especially Blake and Andy,” Rainiers manager Jose Castro said. “It’s nice to get the first game no matter where you are, but we’ve still got to win two more against a quality team in their place.”
The already worn-out story about Tacoma playing this best-of-five series in Memphis because of renovation work at Cheney Stadium was trumped by a victory historic on three fronts.
It was the first win by a Tacoma team in a PCL final round since 1969, though the franchise was declared a co-champion because of rainouts in 1978 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
It snapped a 12-game Rainiers losing streak to American North Division teams – four in Memphis here in May.
And it ended a 10-game Redbirds playoff win streak dating to the 2000 series title won on a homer by a 20- year-old named Pujols.
“That’s how this team is set up. We have guys all through the lineup who can get the big hit, and getting them early helped us relax,” said first baseman Smoak, who belted a two-run homer off Memphis veteran Evan MacLane in the bottom of the second inning for the Rainiers, the “home” team Tuesday and in tonight’s Game 2.
“And to be honest, this park fits us pretty well. It’s not that big and the ball can fly here,” Smoak said. “We can do all right.”
Left fielder Wilson, coming off a hamstring injury, tied the game at 3 with a leadoff solo shot in the fourth, Tacoma’s league-best 190th homer of the season.
Tacoma loaded the bases in the fifth on singles by Greg Halman (3-for-4) and Matt Mangini and a walk to David Winfree.
Reliever Chuckie Fick came in for MacLane and was touched for runs on Smoak’s single and Wilson’s sacrifice fly to make it 5-3.
“Normally MacLane is tough,” Wilson said of the left-handed control pitcher, who handcuffed the Rainiers May 15 (8 innings, one run) and had two shutouts in last year’s Memphis title run. “But his stuff was up more than normal and we took advantage.”
Beavan (1-0) had struggled in the past two weeks, including a four-run 6†-inning outing in a Game 2 win over Sacramento last week.
On Tuesday, he surrendered eight hits in six innings, including a pair of RBI singles to shortstop Donovan Solano, who is 8-for-15 in the postseason. The second capped a two-run fourth that put Memphis on top 3-2 moments after Winfree’s throwing error allowed a run.
Yet Beavan kept his poise, and retired eight of the last nine batters he faced, finishing with six strikeouts.
“I was leaving pitches up in the zone early and getting away with it, but I started to concentrate more after the two runs,” Beavan said. “I know how this team would score runs, so it didn’t bother me.”
Baldwin has struggled as a starter the past month, including the rainy playoff opener at Sacramento last week. But after a leadoff double by Jim Rapoport, Baldwin retired the next six batters, five by strikeouts, and has an 0.50 ERA in his last 18 innings of relief work.
Cortes got his first playoff save with a perfect ninth against a Redbirds team that hit .320 in a first-round sweep of Oklahoma City.