Bright lights, cold beer, and the unmistakable flood of cheers following the sudden crack of a wooden baseball bat. Welcome home, Tacoma Rainiers. You brought R city to its feet on a Tuesday night.
Opening their season on the road on April 4, the Rainiers played five games against the Sacramento River Cats (Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants), but managed to win just one, sending the ballclub home with a disappointing 1-4 record. Finally, back in Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium for their first game in front of a hometown crowd, the Rainiers put on a dramatic show for all to appreciate.
Falling behind early on two solo home runs by the El Paso Chihuahuas (Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres), one in the first and another in the second, things looked dire right out the gate. Then in the bottom of the second, Rainiers DH Jose Lobaton sent a ball over the left field fence (his second HR in two games), cutting the Chihuahuas’ lead down to a single run.
The Rainiers pitcher works through the Chihuahuas lineup.
Earlier in the day, scheduled-starter Erik Swanson was called up to the Seattle Mariners (pack your bags kid; you’re headed to Kansas City!), obliging the Rainiers to use a collection of bullpen arms to navigate the game. In the third inning, a sidearm righty Penn Murfee worked efficiently, albeit a little wild, walking one and hitting one, but touching low-90s to generate several swings-and-misses, including a dazzling third strike punchout to end the inning.
Cheney Stadium features a grassy hill in right field that’s ideal for families and picnics.
But it wasn’t until the fifth inning when things really got exciting. With two runners on, Braden Bishop’s double (his PCL-leading fifth of the season) scored two, extending his hit streak to six games. Next up to bat, Eric Young Jr. surprised the defense by laying down a beautiful bunt single, scoring Bishop and giving the Rainiers a 4-2 lead over El Paso.
There appeared to be more on the line during the game than just the single win or loss. Whether it was the desire to satisfy a local fan base at your home opener or the significance of beginning Chaney Stadium’s 60th season anniversary, the team–and perhaps more importantly, the enthusiastic crowd–really seemed liked they needed to win this one.
Perfectly cut grass in the outfield communicates the stadium’s six-decade milestone.
As it so often does with baseball, it all came down to the bottom of the ninth. After the Chihuahuas scored a run in the eighth, and another in the ninth to tie it 4-4, the Rainiers had their shot. Catcher David Freitas started things off by earning a walk before being replaced by Shed Long as a pinch runner. Then, Austin Nola hit a hard shot into right field, sending the speedy Long to third. Next up, Tim Lopes was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Tito Polo, who hit a line-drive into center, scoring Shed and ending the game in a mob of celebrating teammates.
In all the various ways a professional sports contest can end—penalty kicks, buzzer-beaters, and hail-Mary throws—none are as singularly triumphant as the walk-off. One batter facing one pitcher, asking himself or herself to do the almost-impossible when it matters most. Walk-offs aren’t exactly rare, but it can feel like a wish to the baseball gods being granted when it happens to your team.
And that’s exactly what happened on April 9th for the Tacoma Rainiers home opener. It was a beautiful end to this game and a terrific start to this homestand.
BTW, the next night Shed Long hit a walk-off, 2-run homer over the right centerfield scoreboard, bringing this team to 3-4 on the season and sending the locals into another euphoric eruption of delight.