WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Center fielder Dustin Fowler drew a two-out walk with the bases empty in the third inning for the Aviators and just got under a tag to steal second.
Then the floodgates opened.
Alfonso Rivas capped a five-run rally four batters later with a three-run homer as the Aviators opened their best-of-five first-round playoff series with a 9-3 win over the Sacramento River Cats on Wednesday night at Raley Field.
“That third inning was huge,” Aviators manager Fran Riordan said. “We did all that damage with two outs, and that play by Fowler was key. The throw beat him, but he was able to evade the tag and keep the inning alive.”
Eric Campbell’s bloop single to right field drove in Fowler, and Mark Payton’s double scored Campbell. Dustin Garneau walked ahead of Rivas, a 22-year-old first baseman who Riordan said has been a major spark for the team since he was called up from Class-A Stockton last month.
“He started me off with two heaters, and I was seeing it pretty well,” Rivas said. “I felt comfortable in the at-bat even after going down 0-2. I just got a really good pitch to hit and got to do some damage with it.”
Aviators starter Daniel Mengden labored through 4⅓ innings, allowing two runs on five hits and a walk while striking out six.
Ben Bracewell gave the Aviators 1⅔ scoreless innings in relief to get the win as part of a group of four relievers that allowed one run in 4⅔ innings to preserve the lead.
“That was everything,” Riordan said of his bullpen’s performance. “Mengden wasn’t going to be able to go deep in the ballgame, so we needed our guys in the pen to shine, and every one of them was really up to the task.”
Aviators outfielder Skye Bolt broke out of a 7-for-55 slump during which he struck out 26 times with a solo home run in the fourth inning. Jonah Heim dropped a double between three River Cats fielders in shallow left field to drive in two runs in the seventh as the Aviators extended the lead.
The River Cats loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning, but scored just once after a brilliant play up the middle by shortstop Jorge Mateo that robbed Ronnie Freeman of a single and forced Joe McCarthy at second base to end the rally.
“That play was as big as it gets,” Riordan said. “Bases loaded and they were really threatening. Brilliant play up the middle, and then to get the force to end the inning was massive.”
Mateo led off the game with a double and scored on a fielder’s choice to second by Campbell.
Sacramento tied the score in the first on a single by Mike Gerber, but Mengden struck out back-to-back batters with runners on second and third to end the inning.
Game 2 will be at 6:35 p.m. Thursday at Raley Field. Parker Dunshee (4-5, 5.38 ERA) will start for the Aviators against Chase Johnson (1-2, 7.64).
Aviators vs. Sacramento
Game 1: Aviators 9-3
Game 2: Thursday at Sacramento, 6:35 p.m.
Game 3: Friday at Las Vegas, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4: Saturday at Las Vegas, 7:05 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 5: Sunday at Las Vegas, 12:05 p.m. (if necessary)