Exasperating Road Trip Ends on a High

MAY 22 – BOSTON — Doug Drabek pitched 6.33 solid innings for his sixth win of the season today as the El Paso Diablos won the third and final game of their weekend series at Fenway Park.  They also won nine days ago in San Francisco, the first game of this grueling transcontinental road trip.  Between those bookends, the Diablos dropped six of seven to the Giants, Orioles, and Red Sox.  The Diablos lost three games in which they took a lead into the eighth.  In two other games, they were shut out on four hits.  It was a trip that revealed a few encouraging sights (Steve Rogers looks like the fifth piece of the rotation puzzle, while Drabek has emerged as a genuine ace in this league).  But by the same token, Jason Giambi and Jeff Bagwell batted a combined 9-for-61 (.148) with seventeen strikeouts, while the bullpen posted a 5.49 ERA.  When the Diablos last left Chucotown, they and their fans believed they were pennant contenders.  The atmosphere will be a bit more subdued at Cielo Vista Stadium this week when the Blue Jays and Mets come to visit, at least until the team bounces back.  “First things first, we gotta get to .500,” said Matt Frangino.  “And first things first, we gotta win on Tuesday.”

Moves Must be Made after Mariner Massacre

MAY 12 – EL PASO — Maybe we will look back in September and see this afternoon’s 11-2 loss to the hapless Seattle Mariners as a turning point in this inaugural Diablos season.  In April they would have been happy to win two out of three, from anybody.  But in May the team has grown to where, after two taut well-played wins, the peloteros rojos smelled a sweep and wanted it and were embarrassed at the decisiveness with which they were rebuffed today.

Jim Kaat made a daunting situation hopeless by serving up a three-run homer to Edgar Martinez in the ninth.  It was the sixth home run hit off Kaat in just 15.67 innings on the season.  Jose Vidro seemed mentally disengaged from the game when asked to pinch hit for Kaat in the bottom of the ninth, according to Frangino.  The switch-hitter inexplicably swung right-handed in the on-deck circle preparing to face a righty pitcher (Paul Abbott), then struck out on three pitches from the left side.  Both players were sent down to Alamogordo just minutes after the game in a move surely designed as a wake-up call to a team still not playing up to its potential.  Promoted to replace Kaat and Vidro were Tommy Holmes, who hit .399 in 24 games for the Pupfish since being sent down four weeks ago, and Steve Rogers, a tenacious righty with great stuff and a former Peninsula Whip.

Bagwell Sends Fans Home Happy

MAY 10 – EL PASO — This time, the Diablos made their dramatic two-out ninth-inning home run count.  Two days after Jim Fregosi’s grand slam rocked the valley, only for the Diablos to lose in the eleventh, tonight Jeff Bagwell’s two-out blast off Arthur Rhodes resounded sharply through the amphitheater that is Cielo Vista Stadium and all 29,858 in attendance knew instantly that this was more than the mere single needed for the Diablos’ first ever walk-off win.  With two on and two out in the ninth inning of a 4-4 game, Bagwell’s frozen rope homer traveled 432 feet before striking the rock face just below the main scoreboard.

“Bags produced in the pinch again tonight; that’s no surprise.  He’s the fellow we want to see up there in that spot,” said Johnny Sain, who crafted 2.33 shutout innings to pick up his third win of the season.  Seattle jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a first-inning homer by Edgar Martinez.  But Bob Elliott and Tony Oliva both answered by taking Seattle starter Jim Bouton deep.  Brad Radke turned a 4-3 lead over to Chuck Finley, who coughed it up on a 414-foot homer by Ichiro Suzuki leading off the seventh.

Wild Game Goes to Cincinnati

MAY 8 – EL PASO — The Cincinnati Reds may have won this series, by taking rubber game in eleven innings this afternoon, but the El Paso Diablos proved to themselves and the world that they can compete with the best team in the league.  After Eppa Rixey shut them out in a one-hitter yesterday, the Diablo offense was contained again today.  Reds right hander Jim Maloney allowed a run in the first on a bloop single by Jason Giambi, and a solo homer by Tony Oliva leading off the seventh.  Don Newcombe matched him and the game sailed into the eighth tied 2-2.

Newcombe was lifted with two on and one out in the eighth.  Troy Percival came on and gave up a RBI single to Scott Rolen, then a mammoth three-run homer to Eric Davis.  The Reds tacked on another after Frank Viola replaced the thoroughly ineffective Percival, who was sent down to Alamogordo after the game.  Ben Sheets worked a 1-2-3 top of the ninth in his Diablos home debut.

Following a scoreless eighth by Norm Charlton, Redlegs manager Sparky Anderson asked Dolf Luque to get the final three outs of a 7-2 game.  The Diablos worked the bases loaded, as Jeff Bagwell walked on seven pitches, Craig Biggio leaned into an 0-2 pitch for a cheap plunk, and Gary Pettis worked a nine-pitch walk.  Charles Johnson brought the crowd to its feet with a long drive to left, but George Foster hauled it in a the wall for the second out (Bagwell scored to make it 7-3).  Matt Frangino selected Chili Davis to bat for Sheets, giving him just two short words – “Get on.”  Chili almost struck out (only a merciful call by the base umpire on a check swing appeal saved him) before taking a sweeping bender off the back of his leg to re-load the bags.  Shortstop Jim Fregosi, the Diablos’ most consistent hitter this season, carried the tying run to the plate.  Anderson, with two out still unconcerned, stuck with The Pride of Havana.  Luque rewarded the skipper’s trust by hanging a curveball in the thin air on his 36th delivery of the inning, and Fregosi hammered it into the Diablos’ bullpen over the left field wall for a game-tying grand slam.  Before the baseball had even landed, two things happened – 1) there erupted a scene of bedlam and all-out celebration the likes of which Chucotown had never before seen, and 2) Bryan Harvey, the droopy-drawled rookie signed just days ago out of the mountains of Tennessee, jumped up and began throwing in earnest.  He wanted the job of working the tenth, and his plan for getting it was to be the first one warmed up.

With the game so unexpectedly knotted at the end of nine innings, the crowd regarded what followed as genuinely free baseball.  Harvey and Aroldis Chapman each pitched a scoreless tenth.  J.R. Richard came on to start the eleventh for the Diablos.  Joe Morgan became a leadoff baserunner when his routine bouncer was booted by Fregosi (perhaps the gods of fortune and justice balancing his scales somewhat).  A walk and a single loaded the bases for Foster, whose grand slam could be sensed throughout the ballpark before it even happened.  For it was nothing if not poetic – Fregosi hit one to tie it, then helped give one back to restore the game to its rightful winners, the Reds.

The Diablos fell back to four games under .5oo at 14-18.  They have not been five under since the 0-5 start.  They will try to fatten up their record when the 10-24 Mariners come to town on Tuesday.

Diablos Still Flat After Raines Trade

MAY 4 – PHOENIX — “We just took two out of three from the first place team in our division; it’s hard to be disappointed about that,” El Paso Diablos manager Matt Frangino said with a smile following his club’s  12-4 victory over the Dodgers at Cielo Vista Stadium last Sunday.  The confident peloteros traveled to the magical mountain city of Denver, where Neal’s father’s ghost still wanders 20th and Blake Streets, hawking leftover Rocktober T-shirts to unsuspecting passersby.  In the alternate universe that is Coors Field, the Diablos somehow managed just six runs in two games, losing both.

Then down the Colorado River line to Phoenix rode the Diablos, and it was on this scenic trek that Matt Frangino pulled the trigger on his first big blockbuster deal as a Nitorian League manager.  For the better part of the two days the team spent in Denver, Frangino and/or Gene Schall had been negotiating with the Del Crandall and Harvey Kuenn of the Milwaukee Brewers.  According to Frangino, Crandall approached him to inquire about an outfielder.  El Paso is blessed with depth in the pasture while recent events have precipitated a bullpen shakeup.  So a trade was consummated, sending seven-time All-Star outfielder Tim Raines to Beer Town and bringing talented right hander Ben Sheets to The Sun City.

Raines played in 24 of the Diablos’ first 27 games after they made him one of their highest-profile picks in the Expansion Draft.  He hit .320/.370/.390 with 1 home run, 16 RBI, 7 stolen bases, and 13 runs scored.  “Certainly I was looking forward to having ‘Rock’ at the top of our lineup all year, but adding Ben Sheets to our bullpen can help us turn some of these tight losses into wins the rest of the way.  We are re-evaluating the way we use our bullpen and Sheets will be a big part of it.”

While Sheets raced across the continent from New York (where he was scheduled to pitch for the Brewers tomorrow) Brandon Webb tossed a five-hit shutout, handing the Diablos their third straight loss.

Yet Another Bullpen Meltdown

APRIL 30 – EL PASO — After beating up on Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of this highly-anticipated weekend series, the El Paso Diablos closed within 2.5 games of the division leaders (and earned Matt Frangino a meeting with Jen Dow!).  Mesilla Valley fans had their first real taste of pennant race fever, and a sellout crowd was on hand as the peloteros rojos jumped out to a 7-0 lead against Hall-of-Famer Don Sutton this afternoon.  Tony Oliva and Charles Johnson had each homered off the L.A. right hander, while Brad Radke was efficiently disposing of the beach bums’ lineup.

It began to unravel in the sixth, with an added measure of chaos introduced by the gods.  Radke served up a meatball to Pedro Guerrero and ‘Pete’ turned it around so forcefully that it ricocheted off the mountain side beyond left field all the way back to shortstop Jim Fregosi.  That cut the Diablos’ lead to 8-4.  After recording the second out, Radke loaded the bases, prompting Tommy Lasorda to deploy Kirk Gibson off the bench.  Gibson dribbled a soft grounder toward first – (Radke had escaped the jam!) – but the spheroid plopped directly on top of the first base bag and caromed off to the right.  Jeff Bagwell alertly took off after it and retrieved the ball against the grandstand railing, turned and saw that Gibson had rounded toward second.  Bagwell fired to Radke covering the base; he tagged Gibson and flipped the ball toward the mound for the oncoming Dodger pitcher.  But the umpires ruled that the ball had been touched by a fan before Bagwell could get to it, thus they ruled it a grounds rule double for Gibson, pushing two more Dodger runs across the plate.

Radke retired Delino DeShields to end the inning with an 8-6 lead, which was turned over to Troy Percival in the eighth.  “The Ignitor,” as he’s come to be known since losing the closer’s job in the season’s second week, gave up four hits and two runs – and the lead.  He recorded only two outs before effectively forcing Frangino to remove him, to the first chorus of boos in this heretofore innocent ballpark.

J.R. Richard entered the tie game, and surrendered yet another run in the top of the ninth, with the bottom of the Dodger order again doing the damage.  Now it was his turn to bask under 30,000 boo-birds.  The fans were desperate not to see it end like this.  Bagwell’s one-out single in the bottom half brought forth reserved yet hopeful applause.  Oliva’s single, sending pinch-runner Gary Pettis (the tying run) around to third, raised the volume exponentially.  Bob Elliott, “Mr. Clutch” as his ever-growing fan club calls him, delivered the deep fly ball needed to tie the game once more.  On to the tenth, when “old reliable” Johnny Sain gave up a run, offering a 10-9 lead to Dodger closer Mike Marshall, who saved it.

All told, the Diablos bullpen gave up four runs on nine hits in just 3.33 innings.  The relief corps as a whole is now 3-7 with a 4.05 ERA on the season.  (Diablo starters, by contrast, are a collective 8-6 with a 3.31 ERA.)  Clearly this is the Achilles heel of the ballclub, the reason they seem stuck one or two games under .500, the explanation for why they’re under-performing their Pythagorean record.  Frangino, after this one, continued to profess his faith in Percival, but did not deny the rumors that he has been in conversation with multiple other clubs about acquiring a reliever.  For now, the Diablos can only carry on, with the knowledge that no man is invincible and no lead is safe, especially in their desert oasis in Cielo Vista, a place that is starting to resemble Coors Field South.

Travel Day Tidbits

APRIL 28 – ROLLA, MO — The Diablos finished their 9-game road trip with a record of 5-4.  Eleven days ago, hitting coach Gene Schall remarked that the team would be satisfied with 5-4.  But after winning the first three games in Charlotte, and leading late in three other games that they would ultimately lose, the Diablos must be somewhat disappointed to have taken only five of the nine.

While the back end of the bullpen continues to burn the Diablos, there is still a lot to like about the team.  They have outscored their opponents 98-82 so far this season, for a Pythagorean record of 13-9.  Asked whether he blames himself for the team being three games under that, Frangino (rather predictably) replied “No, it’s just that the breaks haven’t broke [sic] our way in these first few weeks, but it gives us reason to believe that if we just continue to play like we have, we’ll be right there in it at the end.”

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