Comeback wins fuel 51s' run toward berth in PCL playoffs


Destiny can be an overused word in sports, but after rallying for two walk-off wins over Fresno in the past four days at Cashman Field, the 51s appear destined to capture their first Pacific Coast League playoff berth since 2002.

“I think we have that attitude right now, for sure,” Las Vegas left fielder Eric Campbell said. “Whenever you’re rolling like this, it usually carries into the playoffs.”

Campbell delivered game-winning RBI singles for first-place Las Vegas (76-57) in Wednesday’s 8-7, 11-inning win — in which it erased a 7-0 deficit — and Friday’s 9-8, 10-inning triumph, in which it tied the score with two runs in the ninth.

“The main thing for us right now is whenever we’re down, we never feel like we’re out of it,” 51s third baseman Zach Lutz said. “The other night it was 7-0, and we still felt like we were going to come back and win the game, which we did.”

Las Vegas, which beat Fresno 2-1 on Saturday night at Cashman for its season-high tying seventh straight win, leads six-time defending Pacific South Division champion Sacramento (74-61) by three games with 11 games left in the season.

“We’ve just got to worry about ourselves,” 51s manager Wally Backman said. “If we do what we’re capable of doing, I have full confidence in this group of guys that we can win.”

The 51s — 27-11 since the All-Star Break, including 18-3 at home — advanced to the playoffs five times in the franchise’s first six seasons, winning PCL titles in 1986 and 1988, but have reached the postseason only three times in the past 25 years.

“This is what these guys play for. They play for (the playoffs), and they play to go to the big leagues,” Backman said. “They’re pushing. They want to get there, and they don’t quit.”

The same can be said of the fiery Backman, a member of the 1986 New York Mets title team who has won championships, either as a player or manager, at every level of baseball — two in independent leagues and one each in Single A, Double A, Triple A and the big leagues.

“All championships are very special, without question,” he said. “The feeling is an ultimate feeling, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in the big leagues or the minor leagues, because I’ve taken a lot of pride in every one I’ve won as a player and a manager.”

Backman, 53, has played a major role in the team’s success, and 51s executive vice president Don Logan said he thinks Backman is the only choice for PCL Manager of the Year.

“In my mind, there’s nobody even close,” he said. “He’s been outstanding.”

Backman prides himself on standing up for his players, and that goes a long way with them.

“Playing for him makes the game fun,” Lutz said. “He’s always there to give support to everybody, and he’s got your back.

“He’ll fight for you, and whenever you have a coach that does that, it makes going out there and playing the game a lot easier.”

Campbell said Backman is a fierce competitor who always wants to win.

“Since day one of the season, he treats every game the same — and that’s to win it,” he said. “He gets along with the players. He just demands you come to the field and play hard and work hard every day. There’s really nothing more you can ask for in a manager.”

Speedy center fielder Matt den Dekker has played for Backman the past three seasons and enjoys his aggressive approach.

“He likes to make moves, and he likes to run a lot,” he said. “He puts a lot of stuff on when we’re playing, and I think it plays to our style. We’re an aggressive team. If we keep it up, I think it will work out for us.”

The running game played a big part in Friday’s comeback win. The 51s pulled off a double steal to put the tying runs in scoring position in the ninth, and catcher Juan Centeno recorded his first steal of the season in the 10th to help put himself in position to score the winning run.

“It’s a part of the game that I love,” Backman said. “When the opposing team knows you’re going to force the defense to make mistakes or to rush things, it puts pressure on them.”

A plethora of players has stepped up for Las Vegas, which has sent 24 players to the parent Mets, many of whom have filled key roles for New York.

Conversely, several players sent down from New York have contributed to the 51s’ playoff chase, including Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

“It’s been a big merry-go-round really, with guys getting thrown off to the big leagues and other guys have stepped in,” Backman said. “The guys that have come down from the big leagues have had a great attitude.”

Las Vegas is second in the PCL in batting (.285), but pitching, especially the bullpen, has helped carry the squad down the stretch.

“All the guys in the bullpen, to a man, have really stepped up,” Logan said. “Starting pitching is the whole key to the major league game, but at this level it’s the combination of pitching. You’re in the bullpen every single night. The bullpen is key.”

Justin Hampson leads the PCL in appearances (59) and has a 3.32 ERA for the 51s, who also have received solid contributions from relievers John Church, Robert Carson and Sean Henn.

“Right now, the bullpen’s coming up huge,” said Lutz, who leads the team in RBIs with 74.

If the bullpen falters, no need to fret. Las Vegas knows a thing or two about comebacks.

■\u2007NOTE — If the 51s make the playoffs, they’ll face the Pacific North winner ­— Salt Lake or Tacoma — in a best-of-5 series starting Sept. 4 on the road.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or at 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.

 

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