Mitch Haniger put the Aces up early and tied the game late with home runs, upping his total to seven in 10 games against the 51s this season.
So in the ninth inning of a one-run game, Haniger probably wasn’t who closer Paul Sewald wanted to see at the plate.
After a quick visit from pitching coach Frank Viola, Sewald wound up walking Haniger. But with Haniger in the rearview mirror, he struck out the next batter to nail down a 7-6 victory over Reno at Cashman Field.
“We’re trying to pitch him one way and they’re missing over the middle of the plate. He doesn’t miss mistakes,” manager Wally Backman said of Haniger. “We have a good idea how we’re supposed to pitch him. We’ve watched a lot of video and we just can’t execute the pitches. That’s what happened tonight.”
Haniger tagged starter Gabriel Ynoa twice, chasing him out of the game with a two-run shot that tied the game in the seventh inning.
But the 51s came back in the bottom of the inning when Eric Campbell hit a ball hard toward shortstop and it hit off Jack Reinheimer’s glove and skipped into the outfield, plating the game-winning run.
The Aces had grabbed the lead early on a solo shot by Haniger in the first and added onto it with a Peter O’Brien two-run double two innings later.
But Las Vegas charged back with a Johnny Monell grand slam in the bottom of the third, which came after Monell worked the count from 0-2 to 3-2. His 16th home run of the season gave the 51s a 4-3 lead. An inning later, the 51s added onto that with a Kevin Plawecki home run and a Brandon Nimmo RBI single.
But Ynoa couldn’t hold that lead, leaving after 6 1/3 innings and six earned runs.
After his exit, the 51s bullpen, which had been shaky in the first half, turned in a nice performance, with Josh Smoker throwing 1 2/3 innings and picking up the win and Sewald nailing down the save.
It was the third straight scoreless game for the bullpen, which has been more consistent after the All-Star break.
“I think the All-Star break was huge for the bullpen because they’ve been spent,” Backman said. “They’ve been used a lot.”
Smoker, who hasn’t allowed a run in four appearances since the break, hit 97 mph multiple times in his appearance and said the rest was helpful in getting a little bit of velocity back.
With the win, the 51s inched a game closer to first-place El Paso. Now 5 1/2 games back, they’ll need the bullpen to be better than it has to give themselves a chance to make a run at the division.
Saturday was step in the right direction.
“Reno’s a tough team,” Smoker said. “Anytime you can come out, especially with us being in the playoff race just a few games back out of first, anytime you can beat a team like that, it’s a big win, especially in a close game. You’ve got to win close games like that if you want to be a championship team.”
Betsy Helfand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BetsyHelfand