A four-run River Cat rally in the late innings of Sunday’s series finale spoiled an otherwise successful week for the Triple-A Rainiers, who took four of six from Sacramento at Sutter Health Park.
Sacramento’s Drew Jackson launched a two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, capping a 10-6 win after the River Cats trailed, 8-6, in the eighth.
Tacoma continues to pile up series wins. The Rainiers have either won or split five of their last six series, the lone loss to Salt Lake across three games from July 22-24.
Tacoma started the season 9-23. In 72 games since, the Rainiers are 38-34.
“I think our bullpen has been the biggest thing,” manager Tim Federowicz said. “I think that’s kind of been the story of it, is just how good our bullpen has been.”
Call it an uptick in chemistry as the season progresses or an influx of major league talent post-trade-deadline, but Tacoma’s pitching staff has stepped up amid a two-plus-month stretch of winning baseball.
Rainier pitchers own a 4.25 earned run average across the last 30 days, good for third in the Pacific Coast League. In that span, they’ve walked 76 batters, only one more than league-leading Triple-A Las Vegas (75).
Tacoma’s team WHIP over the last 30 days (1.30) leads the PCL.
When Tacoma starter Chris Mazza struggled in Thursday’s start, allowing five runs – four earned – in 1-1/3 innings of work, six Rainier relievers combined for 7-2/3 innings of shutout baseball, allowing Tacoma to chip away at a 5 -3 deficit.
Mitch Haniger, then on a rehab assignment with the Rainiers, singled home Drew Ellis in the fourth, closing the score to 5-4. Kevin Padlo homered in the eighth, capping an 8-5 comeback win.
Another example of a stellar bullpen appearance came a day later when Tacoma starter Darren McCaughan walked the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Friday’s contest. Reliever Roenis Elias entered with two outs and induced a groundout, preventing any damage in an eventual 4-2 victory.
After a clean seventh frame, Elias worked 1-1/3 perfect innings — all on nine pitches.
“The (bullpen) really picked up the starters last night,” Federowicz said Saturday. Elias comes in and picks up D-Mac during the bases-loaded jam. Mazza didn’t have that great of a start, so our bullpen picked him up for that.”
McCaughan managed a solid outing — lasting 5-2/3 innings, surrendering three hits and two runs — though those numbers would look different had Elias allowed any of Sacramento’s base-running trio to score in the sixth.
Reliever Fernando Abad posted a perfect eighth, and closer Drew Steckenrider earned Friday’s save with a scoreless ninth.
“He was throwing the ball well, commanding all of his stuff like he always does,” Federowicz said of McCaughan. “He gave up one homer on a missed spot, but it was a deep count, and he was in a spot where he had to throw a strike.
“I think that’s the key, is his ability to command both sides of the plate, and throw his off-speeds for strikes.”
Some of Tacoma’s starters fired stellar outings last week, starting with Justus Sheffield’s six-inning, one-run performance in Tuesday’s series opener.
The lefty fanned seven River Cats and walked a pair. He kept Tuesday’s pitchers’ duel tied at one until the seventh inning before Forrest Wall drilled a three-run homer, which gave Tacoma a 4-1 advantage.
Sheffield’s start marked his third straight with three or less earned runs. In that span, he’s 2-0 with a 3.06 earned run average, adding 15 strikeouts in 17-2/3 total innings.
“I just think (Sheffield) has better command of all of his pitches,” Federowicz said. “His most recent start, he was saved by his command of the off-speed stuff, especially behind in the count.”
Added Federowicz on Wall’s crucial homer: “You can tell he’s swinging the bat better, coming through in big situations. … He’s just been consistently getting better.”
Tacoma dropped Wednesday’s contest, 1-0, despite five scoreless innings from Rainiers starter Konner Wade. Across three starts and 16 total innings pitched versus the River Cats in 2022, Wade has surrendered only a single earned run, plus 10 strikeouts and walk.
“When (Wade) gets that changeup and cutter going, it’s just too tough of an at-bat for any lefty,” Federowicz said.
Though by Friday, Tacoma had won three of four, which guaranteed a split heading into the weekend.
Mason McCoy stunned those in attendance at Sutter Health Park with a go-ahead, three-run homer in the ninth inning of Saturday’s win. Closer Nick Ramirez earned the save with a scoreless ninth frame, and Tacoma went on to win, 4-2.
Sunday’s loss dropped Tacoma to 47-57, though the Rainiers are 4-2 in August after posting a 13-11 record in July.
“It starts with our pitching staff,” bench coach Zach Vincej told The News Tribune in July. “If they can keep us in close games, that would be a huge, huge deal for us.
“If our pitching staff can keep doing what they’ve been doing the last month or so, I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Outfielder Taylor Trammell is “feeling great” as he continues a rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma for a right hamstring strain.
Trammell appeared for the Rainiers at Sutter Health Park in Sacramento both Friday and Saturday, posting 1-for-4 performances each night. Friday’s hit was a solo homer that broke up a shutout and jump-started a 4-2 comeback win.
“He hasn’t had any issues,” Federowicz said of Trammell on Saturday. “He looks great out there, making some really good plays in center field. He’ll be back out there tonight, so we’ll see where he’s at after that.”
Seattle acquired catcher Curt Casali alongside southpaw Matthew Boyd from the San Francisco Giants before Tuesday’s trade deadline for prospects Michael Stryffeler (RHP) and catcher Andy Thomas.
Casali, 33, joined the Rainiers on Friday to continue a rehab assignment for a right oblique strain. In three games with Triple-A Tacoma, Casali is 3-for-8 (.375) with one walk and one RBI.
Former Reds ace Luis Castillo, also acquired by the Mariners before the Aug. 2 deadline, was Casali’s teammate in Cincinnati from 2018-20. With Casali behind the dish for 27 of Castillo’s starts, the right-hander struck out 202 and walked only 59 across 169 combined innings, good for a 2.61 ERA.
From Rainiers PR: The Casali-Castillo battery in Cincinnati limited opposing hitters to a .191 average, .269 OBP, and .571 OPS.
Southpaw reliever Nick Ramirez is 5-for-5 in save opportunities dating back to July 28, allowing no runs, no walks and three hits across five combined innings in that span.
Tacoma (47-57) returns home to Cheney Stadium for nearly two weeks, meeting both Triple-A Las Vegas and Triple-A Albuquerque across a lengthy 13-game homestand.
The Rainiers kick off a seven-game set with the Aviators on Tuesday, which features a single-admission Saturday doubleheader. They’ll receive Monday off both this week and next, before welcoming the Isotopes to Cheney Stadium for a six-game set beginning Aug. 16.