By Matt O’Donnell, Vallejo Times-Herald
From worst to first and back to worst?
The Vallejo Admirals went from last place to first place last season en route to a Pacific Association championship title. The Admirals contended for first place throughout the first half of 2018 before falling on hard times in August, losing 10 straight at one point.
With less than a week to go in the regular season, Vallejo is trying desperately to regain its swagger. Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Napa Silverados at Wilson Park was a step in the right direction.
The fourth-place Admirals (34-41) increased their lead over Napa (30-45) to four games with five games left in the regular season. The top four franchises in the league make the league playoffs in a do-or-die format next weekend.
There were several heroes in this one, including right fielder Vlad Gomez, who knocked in three of the four runs.
“This is the last stretch so every game is meaningful,” Gomez said. “It is getting us ready for the playoffs and the fact that they are right behind us and trying to catch up means that it’s very meaningful.”
The Admirals received excellent pitching from starter Wilfri Aleton as well as relievers Peter Reyes and Brian McKenna. Aleton surrendered three first-inning runs and then settled down to pitch six sturdy innings. He struck out eight and the only three hits he allowed came in the first inning.
“He’s around the zone and he mixes it up really well,” said catcher Nick Crouse, still the only backstop on the Admirals’ roster. “He keeps hitters off balance and he knows his stuff and he uses it in his favor.”
The Silverados gained early momentum with the three in the first against Aleton, making his fourth start with the Admirals. Ray Jones doubled to lead off the game and scored on Nicco Toni’s run-scoring single. The next batter, Josh Montelongo, crushed Aleton’s offering deep over the left-field fence for a two-run homer. It was Montelongo’s 13th homer of the year.
Vallejo closed to 3-1 in the third inning against Napa starting pitcher Scott Harkin when Gomez’s opposite-field double sailed over the head of right fielder Jordan Anderson to score Chris Fornaci all the way from first base.
Gomez was the hero again in the fifth as his opposite-field single scored Crouse and Fornaci to tie the game 3-3.
“That’s kind of my approach with every pitcher,” Gomez said about the opposite-field hits. “I’ve gotten a lot of hits that way so I’m looking that way.”
Three batters later, Rian Kiniry poked a single into left field to score Gomez for the 4-3 edge.
That’s the way it would stay. Aleton was lifted after walking Nick Kern to lead off the seventh. Reyes, the Benicia High grad, entered and immediately grazed Dominic Bethancourt with a pitch. Drake Yoshioka bunted both runners to second and third.
Admirals manager P.J. Phillips elected to intentionally walk Jones to load the bases. Reyes struck out Willy Salas for the second out and looked like he induced a pop-up from Toni to normally reliable first baseman Graylin Derke for the third out.
Derke, however, dropped the ball in foul territory to give Toni new life. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Toni finally grounded out to end the inning.
“Pete just battled out there,” Crouse said. “He’s battled for us all year. I have all the confidence in the world in him and he executed some really good pitches there to get out of that.”
In the ninth, McKenna struck out Bethancourt, Yoshioka and Jones to nail down his first save of the season. McKenna is the Admirals’ backup catcher in case Crouse ever gets injured.
“McKenna has a power arm. He can just throw it,” Crouse said. “I think he’s been preparing to do that. Tonight he had it working and he got the job done.”
Notes: First-place Sonoma could have clinched first place with a win over San Rafael but the Pacifics won 5-3 to keep that race alive. … Anderson made two excellent plays in right field, robbing Gomez and Crouse of hits. Nick Akins Sr. in turn robbed Anderson of extra bases with a long running catch to end the sixth inning. … Admirals shortstop Brandon Fischer, who had two hits, stole his team-leading 18th base.