It seems harsh to describe a week in which you lose only one game as a failure, but it was. And it was so avoidable. If the major league club of an organization is the "parent club" then the Diamondbacks were the parent that promised a clown for their child’s birthday party, and then hired the first guy they saw driving a panel van with a sign that said "free candy".
And it had all started so well.
In fact, the week for the Reno Aces between first pitch on Tuesday and Mark Melancon taking the mound in a competitive game for the first time in 2023 had gone as well or better than could have been reasonably expected. At the beginning of the week, they needed to win at least 4 games in Las Vegas and have other results go their way. They had to pass Las Vegas and Round Rock, and make sure to hold off Tacoma, Albuquerque, and Oklahoma City.
And yet, even before the weekend rolled around, the Aces found themselves controlling their own destiny.
On Tuesday, they jumped on the Aviators early, and a brief hiccup by Tyler Ferguson in the third inning was but a brief setback. Sergio Alcantara went 4-for-5, Philip Evans homered and drove in 2, and 3 Las Vegas errors helped the Aces to 7 runs. The pitching staff allowed just 1 run other than in that third inning, and the Aces took the first game 7-4. Meanwhile, in Tacoma, Ryan Bliss and Cooper Hummel helped out their former team, as both homered in a 15-7 Rainiers victory.
Wednesday saw Chad Patrick take the mound for the Aviators, and he failed to get an out in the third inning, as the Aces scored 7 in the inning. Jorge Barrosa homered as part of his 3-for-6 day, and Tristin English hit his 16th of the season, a three-run blast. The only negatives in the game were that the bullpen allowed Las Vegas to make it a bit close, as it wound up a 10-7 win, and Blaze Alexander left early after being hit by a pitch. That, unfortunately, ended his AAA season, and may have proven costly. In Tacoma, Cooper Hummel drove in 2 runs and he and Bliss combined for 3 hits as the Rainiers defeated the Express 5-2. Just two days into the week, and the Aces were tied for first!
The way the tiebreakers work in the minor leagues has to do with momentum, and I don’t mean the next day’s starting pitcher. If two teams are tied, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. The Aces and the Express split the season series, so the tiebreaker would go to the team with the best record over the final 20 games. That meant that the Aces were now the first place team, with a magic number of 4.
But there was cause for concern. If momentum is only as good as the next day’s starter, the Aces were in trouble, as the starter on Thursday was Peter Solomon, who was 0-7 on the AAA season and held an ERA of 10.32 since his last promotion to Reno. That was an improvement on his 10.91 ERA he had during his second stint with the club, and that was an improvement on his 11.57 ERA during his first lengthy stint with the club. Suddenly, his ERA of 12.15 in the majors this year doesn’t seem too bad…
However, Solomon had been pitching better of late, even if the results didn’t necessarily show it, and in his wisdom he chose Thursday to have his best start of the year. He tossed 5 scoreless innings, struck out 5, and walked 3. He also left after the fifth inning with an 8-0 lead, thanks to home runs from English, Pavin Smith, and Jose Herrera. The latter two hit their bombs off of Zack Godley, who is still playing the game, even though he has not appeared in the majors since 2021 (and has not been a regular since 2019). The game went so well that Mitchell Stumpo pitched a scoreless inning (it was also just his second hitless inning in Reno this season) to lower his Reno ERA to 16.55. (Solomon’s dropped to 10 flat.) However, Round Rock rebounded to win 11-8 in Tacoma, and the magic number only dropped to 3.
Friday saw a pair of closer games. The Aces jumped out to a big lead, but an Alcantara throwing error led to 3 unearned runs in the fifth, and Jose Ruiz surrendered 2 more runs in the sixth, and suddenly it was a 6-5 nailbiter. Thankfully, Kyle Backhus, Austin Pope, and Justin Martinez allowed just three baserunners the rest of the way, and an insurance run in the ninth made it a 7-5 final. Alcantara did hit a three-run home run in the second inning, so at least he drove in as many as he let in. Pavin Smith also went yard. But Round Rock never trailed in a close game in Tacoma, as the Express won 3-2. Magic number dropped to 2, however.
Nabil Crismatt got the start on Saturday and had one of his better outings, as he struck out 7. He did allow 5 runs (4 earned) but got the win thanks to a big offensive day by the team, although no one in particular drove the bus. 8 players had hits, all 8 scored runs, and 7 players drove in runs. Even top prospect JJ Bleday’s big day couldn’t save the Aviators, as the Aces took the game 11-7. Round Rock and Tacoma played a crazy PCL type game, even in the most pitcher friendly park in the league, but Round Rock prevailed 12-10 despite both teams collecting 17 hits.
That brought us to Sunday, and the unfortunate incident of the rehab assignment. For, instead of Tuesday’s starter Slade Cecconi (who was recalled on Friday) or Tyler Gilbert leading the way again, it was Mark Melancon, making his first appearance of the season, in a game the Aces really needed to win.
It started out well. Jorge Barrosa, who has proven an able leadoff hitter since Jake McCarthy’s latest promotion, walked to begin the game, stole a base, and scored on a Kyle Lewis groundout. Just 27 outs stood between Reno and the road series sweep against a fellow contender, and a spot in the championship series.
Then Mark Melancon happened. Last season, Melancon had the dubious honor of becoming the person to accumulate at least 15 saves and at least 10 losses in the fewest amount of innings, as well as being just the seventh player in the single-inning save era who didn't start some games to reach those figures. (Also on the list is another failed Hazen bullpen signing, Brad Boxberger.) Oh, Melancon also was just the sixth pitcher to reach those figures with a WHIP of 1.5 or higher; even Gene Garber, who lost 16 games with the Braves in 1979, and Mike Marshall, who lost 15 games with the Twins in the same season, pitched substantially better in those seasons than Melancon did last season.
Melancon, according to the website forebears.io, is from the French and means "the sick or infirm man." This is a rather fitting name for someone who has spent the entirety of the season on the IL, and also for a pitcher who would shortly put the Reno season on life support. As we saw so often last season, Melancon is simply not a good pitcher, and Mike Hazen should not let him anywhere near the pitching staff of the valiant Amarillo Sod Poodles (lest he end their season in similar fashion) let alone the major league staff. He used to be good, he isn’t any more, and since he’s already been paid pretty much all of his salary from the highly ill-advised contract Hazen gifted him almost two years ago, he should have been released. He began this game by walking Max Schuemann on four pitches, all of them cutters within 1.2 mph of each other. He followed that up against Bleday with another ball (this time on a curveball) and then, pitching with a timer for the first time in his career, took an automatic ball. A fifth cutter missed the zone (all of these missed the zone high) before he finally found the very top of the strike zone with another cutter, which left Bleday’s bat at 106.5 mph but with just a 13 degree launch angle, was simply a hard hit single, putting runners on the corners.
Buddy Kennedy either had not paid attention to the first two at-bats, or he felt sorry for his recent teammates and decided to help them out, as he swung at the first pitch and fouled it off. After taking three balls, he swung at another pitch well out of the zone, and hit a weak pop-up. However, Pavin Smith stepped into the dugout after catching the ball, and both runners advanced, tying the game. Still, there was at least an out. Could Melancon settle down?
The very next pitch was a curveball in the exact middle of the zone. To be fair, it was hit more weakly than Bleday’s liner, as this one only left the bat at 96.5 mph. Plus, it was hit hard enough that Bleday had to hold at third, so no run scored, and the double play was now in order. Unfortunately, Diego Castillo had lost track of the number of outs, so when another hard-hit ball (this one leaving the bat at 103.4 mph) was hit straight at him, he threw to first rather than attempt the double play, which probably would have been successful, although, as we had learned earlier in the week, Alcantara is not anywhere near as good of a defender as Alexander.
Mercifully, Melancon was lifted at that point, having allowed three batted balls out of four with over 95 mph exit velocity. Unfortunately, while Tyler Gilbert didn’t allow that hard hit of balls, he did allow the inherited runner to score, and a 1-0 lead had turned into a 3-1 deficit.
Zack Godley entered for the Aviators and walked Alcantara, who got himself thrown out trying to score on a Barrosa double. With no one out, he probably should have been held at third. On the one hand, it took two perfect throws to get him. On the other, he wasn’t running particularly hard. The Aces did finally get a run back in the fourth inning on a Jose Herrera groundout which scored Kyle Lewis. Unfortunately, they turned around and gave up two more, the second on a single by Kennedy, who decided to hurt his old mates after all. Another run was added in the sixth inning on a Bleday sacrifice fly, as the bullpen couldn’t hold up as well as they had in recent days. After six, the Aces trailed 6-2. Worse still, the Express were piling up the runs in Tacoma. A comeback needed to happen.
Castillo and Herrera walked to lead off the seventh. After Adrian Del Castillo grounded out, an Alcantara single plated one, and a Barrosa groundout plated another 6-4. Pavin Smith singled to lead off the eighth, but was erased on a double play. Kyle Backhus was pitching well, so it went to the ninth a 6-4 game.
And Castillo again came through, lining a 3-1 pitch at over 100 mph for a double. He advanced on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly, bringing Alcantara to the plate as the final batter. He struck out, and the Aces had finally lost, bringing a bitter end to what had been a fantastic week. Their season officially ended shortly after, as Ryan Bliss’s 11th home run of the AAA season was nowhere near enough, and Round Rock demolished Tacoma 11-6.
To be fair to Melancon, Pavin Smith and Diego Castillo certainly didn’t do him any favors with their mental errors. However, it’s also fair to observe that Mike Hazen sent him to Las Vegas to start an important game when he had never thrown in a competitive game with a pitch clock. And it’s also fair that he had no command of his pitches and they got hit hard when they were near the zone. It’s a shame for the rest of the Reno roster who fought so hard through the week that their fate was largely determined by someone who wasn’t a part of the team, and who was taking innings from better pitchers.
At least Amarillo is still alive, nay thriving. For the Sod Poodles won their third consecutive road playoff game on Sunday, to move within a win of the championship. Dylan Ray got the start and pitched decently, although he struggled with control, walking 4. That kept him from lasting longer than 4.1 innings, but he left having allowed just 2 hits and 1 run, striking out 5. He also left with the lead, as after he surrendered a solo home run, Kristian Robinson got that run back, driving in Seth Beer with a double.
Robinson later scored on an error to give the Soddies a 2-1 lead. Deyvison De Los Santos doubled in A.J. Vukovich in the sixth inning to make it 3-1. Meanwhile, Jake Rice tossed 1.2 innings walking 1 and striking out 3, Michel Otanez tossed a perfect seventh, and while Christian Montes De Oca ran into some trouble in the ninth (as the Travelers scored a run on 2 walks and just their third hit of the game) he was able to get the save and the Sod Poodles will head home to Amarillo on Tuesday with two chances to clinch their second Texas League championship.