After Austin Byler tripled home a run and scored on an error in the sixth inning, the Rawhide held a 4-0 lead. And with the way that Visalia had pitched through the game, four runs seemed like a mountain to climb for visiting Inland Empire. But after Nick Baker induced a lineout from Cody Ramer to start the seventh inning, the wheels fell off.
Baker surrendered three consecutive singles to Julian Leon, Jake Yacinich, and Zach Gibbons, scoring one run. Matt Thaiss followed by chopping a grounder toward the hole at second that Rawhide second baseman Fernery Ozuna ranged far to his left to grab. After he gloved the ball, though, Ozuna had trouble on the transfer and threw it past Austin Byler. Visalia catcher Francis Christy corralled the rebound off the wall and attempted to throw out Thaiss at second, but the ball sailed into center. All things told, two runs scored on the play, and in a matter of minutes, the Rawhide saw their lead dwindle to a one-run advantage.
With a Theiss on second and one out, Manager Shelley Duncan brought in Mason McCullough to stop the bleeding. But McCullough did more than that: he shifted the momentum of the game. He struck out the next two batters to escape the jam, and then struck out two more in the eighth inning to keep it a one-run ballgame.
The Rawhide took advantage of another Inland Empire miscue in the bottom of the eighth to score an insurance run. Byler led off with a ringing double to right and moved to third on a Zach Nehrir groundout. With two out, Grant Heyman struck out on a wild pitch and was able to beat the throw to first. Byler rushed home to score, giving Visalia a 5-3 advantage.
Cody Clark allowed a run on a Gibbons RBI double, but struck out Thaiss and Jared Foster to end the game and earn his first save of the year in a 5-4 Rawhide victory.
“When we had that seventh inning that was kind of a circus… which is no fault of anybody, but those innings can spiral out of control. And (McCullough) came in from the bullpen and… got everybody regrouped,” said Duncan. “Next thing you know, that momentum was back on our side and our offense rode with it. That’s what makes us who we are: a team that plays aggressively, puts pressure on the other team nonstop, and isn’t afraid of big moments.”
Before the wild seventh, Visalia (6-2) and Inland Empire (2-6) were caught in the midst of a pitcher’s duel between Jose Almonte and Jose Rodriguez. Following Wednesday night’s 9.1 perfect innings by the Rawhide pitching staff, Almonte came out of the gates and threw four no-hit innings, before eventually surrendering his first hit on a Gibbons grounder in the fifth. It wasn’t a smooth ride for Almonte though: while he struck out nine batters, he also walked five, including three in the second inning to load the bases. He exited the game after 4.2 innings with runners on first and second. Baker (1-0) retired Foster on a fly-out to right to escape the jam.
“Almonte had dominant stuff but didn’t quite put it all together,” said Rawhide Pitching Coach Jeff Bajenaru. “We came into today with the goal of using his fastball more, and he did effectively, but he couldn’t command it. His stuff was nasty, but the walks forced up his pitch count early.”
Almonte threw 35 pitches in the second inning alone, and for the second straight outing was unable to throw five complete innings.
Rodriguez (0-2) allowed a pair of runs in the first inning when Colin Bray, Ozuna, and Marty Herum laced back-to-back-to-back singles to the opposite field. Herum’s hit scored Bray, and Byler followed with a sac-fly to plate Ozuna. But Rodriguez settled down to retire 11 batters in a row before eventually allowing another two runs in the sixth inning on Byler’s triple.
The Rawhide and 66ers will play the second game of the three-game series on Friday night. First pitch is at 7:00 and will feature RHP Ivan Pineyro for Visalia and RHP Luis Pena for Inland Empire. It will also be the first Firework Friday of the year, where the Rawhide putting on a post-game fireworks show. Tickets are still available on rawhidebaseball.com.