El Paso, Texas -- Walker Lockett turned in the start that both he and the organization were waiting for Saturday, leading the Chihuahuas to a 7-1 series-opening victory over the Reno Aces.
For Lockett, who gave up five runs to the Aces in his last outing and had surrendered 11 over two starts since his strong opening night performance, the success came through a combination of getting back to his bread and butter, and introducing a new wrinkle.
While he relied on a sinker that worked down in the zone more than his last few outings, the 22-year-old Floridian also mixed in a cutter regularly for the first time.
“I’ve always had it, but I haven’t really thrown it aggressively like I did tonight,” said Lockett. “I think that was definitely a plus, I was able to keep guys off-balance.”
For the most part, Lockett was able to avoid hard contact.
“This is what we expect out of him,” said manager Rod Barajas. “Attacking hitters, make those guys put the ball in play quickly, and going seven innings.”
Through the first three innings, he’d given up a couple of seeing-eye singles and the balls hit in the air were harmless off the bat. But in the fourth, he left a ball out over the plate and Christian Walker pulled it down the line onto the short porch at Southwest University Park.
Two other Aces hit the ball hard in the frame, but Lockett got out without further damage.
“We’ve been waiting for him to kind of stand up. In spring training, he opened a lot of eyes, and his job is to come down here and be that next guy on the board,” said Barajas. “This is the way he should perform. He’s that good. He’s got good enough stuff. The velocity, the body, the size, the downward angle [on pitches], everything that he brings to the table is Major League quality.”
Meanwhile, the Chihuahuas offense was slowly building an insurmountable lead for Lockett.
In the second, Jabari Blash, who had a rough night at the plate Friday, launched a typically mammoth two-run homer to left to get El Paso on the board.
In the fifth, a pair of sloppy plays by Aces shortstop Ketel Marte set up a great scoring opportunity, but Cory Spangenberg hit a double-play grounder, leaving a runner on third with two out. Jose Pirela hit a ball sharply that third baseman Ildemaro Vargas dove to snare, but Pirela busted it out of the box and was just able to beat the throw, allowing a run to come across.
The Chihuahuas got three straight singles in the bottom of the sixth to tack another run on, giving Lockett, who had thrown only 75 pitches through six innings, some breathing room to come out for the seventh inning.
After a one-out walk, Vargas turned on a fastball, yanking it just foul well beyond the right field wall. Lockett then came back with a cutter and two-seamer to strike Vargas out in the key at-bat of the night against him.
“That’s when it gets fun,” said Lockett. “It gets down to grind time and you’ve got to make pitches to get outs. He hit me a little bit our last series against them, so I was like ‘he’s not going to beat me again.’”
Once again, the veteran anchors of the offense came through with big hits for the offense. Jamie Romak, who came in leading the minors with eight home runs and five in the last five games, crushed a two-run homer to deep left-center in the seventh, then Dusty Coleman hit a solo shot in the ninth to cap the scoring. The 30-year-old shortstop is now hitting .256/.289/.488 on the year.
After a 2-for-4 night to extend his hitting streak to seven, Romak is leading the PCL with an OPS of 1.2XX. For the 31-year-old Canadian, the fast start is a remarkable turn-around from his 2016 season, which he spent shuttling between Nippon Professional Baseball and the Japanese minor leagues.
“It was an interesting experience for me over there. The biggest thing was I never hung my head,” said Romak. “I’m definitely just enjoying how things are going right now.”
NOTES: Spangenberg went 0-for-3 with a walk on the night. He stung a ball at the second baseman to lead off the game, and had a couple of strong takes in the walk. Despite a so-so jump, he successfully swiped his third bag in five attempts on the season. … Carlos Asuaje had a rough night at second base, with a couple balls that could have been outs instead sneaking in for hits. In the three games I’ve been here, he’s had mixed results as he continues to work on his defense. … Logan Bawcom worked a clean ninth inning, striking out two. The minor league free agent signee has only surrendered one run on four hits through his first 10.1 innings while posting 12 strikeouts. A career reliever until he made a handful of starts for Oklahoma City last year, the former Dodger is one of a handful of minor league veterans with ties to Logan White contributing in the system.