Tacoma Rainiers fighting for playoff spot

Looks like John Russell can manage after all

A team must be a team of destiny when it gives up five runs in the top of the first inning and comes back with two grand slams in the bottom of the first. That’s what the Tacoma Rainiers, the triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, did on Tuesday against the Red Rock Express. The grand slams came courtesy of first baseman Isiah Gilliam and shortstop Ryan Bliss. Gilliam’s ball traveled an estimated 478 feet. For Bliss, it was his second blissful grand slam in six days.

Right-hander Adam Oiler had a rough start for Tacoma. He would settle down and gave his team four strong innings, exiting in the sixth with a 14-6 lead. Manager John Russell, the same John Russell who caught Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter and managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, maneuvered the bullpen the rest of the way, with former major-leaguer Casey Sadler finishing a 15-9 victory with a tidy ninth.

It was the Rainiers’ third win in a row, scoring in double digits in each game. On Wednesday, they defeated the Express again, this time by a more conventional 5-2 score. Their record now stands at 77-69 heading into Thursday’s action. With four games left in the season, the Rainiers must win three of them to grab the remaining playoff spot in the Pacific Coast League.

The city

Tacoma sits just 32 miles southwest of Seattle. I’ve been to games in Pawtucket, where the Boston Red Sox have their triple-A club. Pawtucket is just a 50-minute drive from Boston, if you can survive the trip. If one dies in an automobile accident in Boston, his obituary says he died of natural causes. In any event, I’ve spoken to Boston and Pawtucket fans who attend one another’s games. There’s a feeling that they’re all in it together. I have to think the same vibe exists in Tacoma.

Tacoma was once an industrial city. Today its downtown area, which boasts an art and theater district, and the University of Washington Tacoma are the engines of the local economy. The city has produced, inter alios, singers Bing Crosby and Neko Case, actress Dyan Cannon, cartoonist Gary Larson, Isaiah Thomas of the NBA and, oddly, serial killers Ted Bundy, Joseph Edward Duncan and Michael Swango.

A raw deal

I’m rooting for Russell and Tacoma to make the playoffs. Russell got a raw deal in Pittsburgh. With the front office calling the shots and the team undergoing more turnover than Black Flag, Russell’s Pirates finished 186-299 from 2008-2010.

In 2008, then-general manager Neal Huntington, beginning his rebuilding effort, had many desirable trade chips in Jason Bay, Jose Bautista, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, Adam LaRoche, Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. However, trading these commodities yielded little useful major-league players. Of the players obtained, only Josh Harrison, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Jose Tabata were part of the team that went to the wild card game in 2013.

Instead, Russell was forced to play not-ready-for-prime-time Jeff Clement at first base and converted outfielder Delwyn Young at second base. He was forced to send a struggling Morton to the mound every fifth day, when it was a guaranteed loss. Huntington insisted on a bizarre outfield alignment that had the left fielder stationed in left-center, guarding the deep “notch” in PNC Park but leaving all of left field vacant. Consequently, fly balls that would have been easy outs fell in for hits at critical moments.

Too bland?

Russell was unpopular in Pittsburgh. The Norman, Oklahoma native spoke in a soft Oklahoma drawl, rarely showed emotion in the dugout and was thought to be too bland to fire up a team. That type of criticism is pure nonsense. “Bland” worked just fine for Joe Torre and Chuck Noll. Of course, if Russell’s teams were winning, he’d have been praised for maintaining an even keel throughout the long season. I would venture a guess that’s what they say about him in Tacoma now. It seems he can manage after all.

As it turned out, the Pirates chose the right replacement in Clint Hurdle, a sharp manager and leader who would direct them during the three wild card years of 2013-2015. But that doesn’t mean Russell received any less of a raw deal.

How the triple-A playoffs work

As you know, the postseason in triple-A works a little differently from the major leagues. The Rainiers are going for the PCL’s only available second-half playoff spot. If you don’t know how it works, the explanation is better left to milb.com:

“Each Triple-A season will be split into two halves, with the first half ending on June 25th and the second half commencing on June 28th. The regular season will conclude on Sunday, September 24th. The first-half winners will serve as the hosts of the pair of best-of-three LCS, which are slated to begin on Tuesday, September 26th. In the event the same Club wins both halves, the Club with the next best winning percentage in the second half will advance. The winners of the two LCS will advance to Las Vegas Ballpark, which also hosted last season’s Triple-A Triple Championship Weekend, for Saturday’s decisive matchup.”

I hope Russell and the Rainiers go all the way in triple-A this year.

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