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51s travel schedule wearing on starting pitchers

At 4:45 Friday morning, the 51s will wake up to catch a 6 a.m. bus to McCarran International Airport. The team will touch down in Salt Lake City early in the afternoon, go to the hotel briefly, then head to Smith’s Ballpark for the start of a four-game series with the Salt Lake Bees at 7:05 p.m. (MDT).

It’s tough for everyone, but particularly for Duane Below. He has to pitch that day.

“It’s very tough to travel and perform on the same day,” pitching coach Frank Viola said.

The 51s’ June schedule will do wonders in racking up frequent flier miles, but that’s about the only upside. Since May 31, the 51s have not spent more than four full days in any city. They were in Reno, came home for a series against Tacoma, flew to Albuquerque, then came back home.

It doesn’t get easier. After the series with Salt Lake, they head to Reno, then back home before hitting the road for four games in Tacoma.

In all, the 51s will go through June without having a homestand last more than four games.

“That gets old,” Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. “The wear and wear, it’s a lot harder than people realize. It’s not like the big leagues where when the game is over, you get on a charter flight and off you go.”

It’s especially hard on pitchers such as Below, who said the key is making sure he is as rested as possible. That’s easier said than done when he wakes up in Nevada and works in Utah.

“On the plane it’s tough to sleep sitting up,” Below said. “The biggest thing is I try to drink as much water as I can, and when we get there, I go to the hotel and I’ll try to take a nap.

“It’s just a matter of getting to sleep and getting up and just getting your body ready to go.”

Since the city-hopping stretch began, four different pitchers have opened the four series Las Vegas has played. In those, the starters have combined for an 8.49 ERA, and only Seth Lugo on May 31, the beginning of the gauntlet, has a quality start. The usually steady Gabriel Ynoa allowed 10 earned runs in five innings June 13 against Reno, a day in which he woke up in Albuquerque.

The pitchers won’t use it as an excuse, but traveling on the day of the game is certainly not aiding their performance.

“Sometimes it does affect you, but it’s not an excuse,” Ynoa said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s a grind, but it’s what (we) sign up for going into the season.

”You have to be tough mentally. You have to go out and play even if you’re tiring.”

A positive of living in Las Vegas and having access to a major international airport is nearly every flight is direct. The team flies to all its trips except for Fresno, which is about a six-hour bus ride.

It’s better than what Below had to deal with in the past.

“When I played with New Orleans in 2013, it was always a 3:30, 4 wake-up call because there was always connectors,” Below said. “You had a two- to three-hour layover in certain airports, and you see a line of guys laying on the airport floor trying to get some sleep because we have a three-hour layover.”

The travel is tough. If you ask Viola, it’s tougher in the Pacific Coast League than anywhere else, particularly this current stretch the 51s find themselves in.

But once a pitcher can get endure these hardships, Viola said he can get through anything.

“If you survive this league, more than any other league in minor league baseball, you will be very successful in the big leagues,” Viola said. “It’s not just performance here. It’s performance, but as a pitcher, you’re talking about ballparks that are ridiculous for pitchers, the travel that is ridiculous.

“There is so much ridiculousness in the Pacific Coast League that once you get through it and able to fight and battle and get your chance in the big leagues, it’ll be the most incredible high and most relieving thing you’ve ever been through.”

Justin Emerson can be reached at jemerson@reviewjournal.com. Follow on Twitter: @J15Emerson

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