Rainiers Zapp Grizzlies

Pennant fever is heating up faster than Ichiro down in the Pacific Coast League, and the Rainiers are right in the middle of it. Tacoma's 11-7 win over Fresno Friday night wasn't your typical 11-7 victory, though this type of win is becoming a normal result for the Rainiers.

TACOMA-The Tacoma Rainiers defeated the Fresno Grizzlies in dramatic fashion Friday night, to sweep the four-game series with an 11-7 walk-off victory. The win extends the Rainiers' winning streak to six and and continues the stranglehold on first place in the PCL's Northern Division.

In a pennant race, teams expect to be involved a lot of tightly contested games and often times feed off of epic comebacks, late-inning heroics, and dramatic finishes. At any level of baseball, these things come with the territory. But this is getting ridiculous.

The Tacoma Rainiers capped off one of those epic comebacks with some late-inning heroics and a dramatic finish that accompanied the final rally. Oh, and A.J. Zapp picked Friday's game versus the Fresno Grizzlies to have a career night.

Plus, he couldn't have chosen a better way to seal the deal.

Falling behind early for the fifth consecutive game, Tacoma battled back with the bats as the bullpen picked up the slack from starting pitcher Bryan Ward, and the defensive miscues that hurt the left-hander in the first stanza of the ball game.

Zapp's night got started in the bottom of the first inning after Mickey Lopez and Jeremy Reed had already reached on singles of their own, and advanced to second and third before Zapp stepped in the box.

Zapp's line drive to center field drove in both runners, handing the Rainiers a 2-0 lead. It was a lead that wouldn't last, however, partly due to the second error of the game by the Tacoma infield.

Fresno scored four times in the second to take a 4-2 lead, and added one in the third and two in the fourth to make it a 7-2 game.

Down five runs in the heat of a pennant race? So what!

Tacoma right-hander Jared Hoerman pitched the first of his three shutout innings in the fifth, allowing the Rainiers to hop on the horse and ride the comeback trail.

With two down and a man on in the bottom of the fifth, Zapp belted his 25th home run of the year to cut the lead to 7-4. The opposite-field blast came with Mickey Lopez aboard after the left fielder singled to lead it off.

Each team went silent for two innings, setting up a finish for the ages.

Still 7-4 heading into the bottom of the eighth, Ryan Christianson drew a walk from reliever Lee Gardner and Zapp doubled to right to score Christianson from first, cutting the lead to just two runs at 7-5. The double was Zapp's fourth hit of the night and fifth RBI.

After newcomer Tony Zuniga singled Zapp to third, catcher Jim Horner drove Zapp home with a sacrifice fly to center field to cut it to a one-run lead.

The seventh independent league signing of the season, right-hander Bill Simas, followed Randy Williams' scoreless eighth, with a shutout inning of his own in the top of the ninth.

Grizzlies manager Fred Stanley went to his closer, right-hander David Aardsma, looking to close it out in the ninth inning and salvage the final game of the series.

Rainiers manager Dan Rohn countered by sending Luis Ugueto to the plate, in a pinch for starting 2B George Sandel. Ugueto responded by legging out a grounder to short, turning the lineup over and bringing up right fielder Elpidio Guzman.

Guzman battled for a walk, setting up Thursday night's hero, Mickey Lopez, with the tying run in scoring position.

Lopez lined a single to center field and Ugueto raced around third to score the tying run and with the crowd in a frenzy over the comeback, fate was feeding the hunger for more by sending the middle of the Rainiers batting order to the plate with the score tied at seven.

Stanley ordered four wide ones to Jeremy Reed, setting up a righty versus righty match up between Aardsma and Rainiers DH Ryan Christianson with the bases loaded and nobody out.

A funny thing happens sometimes, when a negative occurrence sets up the opportunity for something better. Something much better.

Christianson struck out looking for the first out of the inning. This was the bad news. The good news was strutting to the batter's box in the form of Mr. A.J. Zapp. He of the four hits on the night, the 25 home runs on the season, and the left-handed stroke that has lit the Grizzlies up for the past three nights.

The scenario was set. The bases were loaded. The score was all knotted up. The crowd of over six thousand rabid fans was buzzing with anticipation. And Zapp was feeling like a hero.

After the count went to two strikes with the first two pitches, the Rainier faithful began react with oooh's and aaah's after each pitch. Zapp fouled off three pitches and worked the count to 3-2. After fouling off two more, the 26-year-old started the Friday night firework show a few minutes early.

Aardsma's 3-2 pitch to Zapp was crushed deep into the night for a walk-off grand slam home run that gave the Rainiers the 11-7 victory.

The four-run shot gave Zapp a career-high tying 26 home runs and a career-best 94 RBI on the season. The nine runs batted in was also a career best for the Rainiers first baseman.

Zapp tied a career-best with five hits on the night and spoke of his final at-bat after the game.

"I was just trying to clear my mind and get a good pitch to hit" said Zapp. "I'm just in the zone."

The win could prove to be as big as any for Tacoma, as they head south to Portland for the first of nine straight versus the Beavers. Tacoma sits just a half-game ahead of Portland for the Northern Division lead.

Bat Men:
Other than Zapp's 5-for-5, 9-RBI night, Tacoma hit the ball well, especially the top half of the lineup. Mickey Lopez went 3-for-5 and is now hitting a season-best .293 on the year. Jeremy Reed continued his hot streak, going 2-for-4 with a walk, and is now hitting .313 with Tacoma. The top five hitters in the Rainiers' order reached base fifteen times on the night, creating a nightmare for Grizzlies pitchers.

With players playing out of position, and in roles they aren't accustomed to, the Rainiers defense let down starting pitcher Bryan Ward early in the game, allowing three unearned runs to score. The defense tightened when it needed to, however, with hitting hero A.J. Zapp digging out a throw in the dirt in a crucial situation in the sixth.

Hit Parade:
Fresno shortstop Brian Dallimore went hitless in Friday night's game versus Tacoma. No he didn't fail to hit safely, he went 1-for-4 with the bat but was not plunked by a pitch in any of his five plate appearances. Dallimore was hit seven times in 16 games this season by Rainiers pitching.

The I-5 Series:
Tacoma heads to Portland to start a four-game set at PGE Park in a battle of the two top teams in the Northern Division. Following the series in Portland, the Rainiers return home for a five-game series at Cheney Stadium versus those same Portland Beavers.

Saturday's Matchup:
Tacoma (70-53) will send right-hander Jeff Harris (3-3, 5.60 ERA) to the hill versus Portland's (69-56) Justin Germano.

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