Column: In Aceball, dreams are realized or put to the test

Tahoe Onstage

Ildemaro Vargas waves to spectators in Greater Nevada Field early in Sunday’s game.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage photos

“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” – Pete Rose

For baseball fans, there are many things to like about Ildemaro Vargas.

The shortstop has incredibly quick hands, wide range and a strong arm. He’s a very good contact hitter and has a penchant for stealing bases and stretching doubles into triples. But the most notable thing about Vargas is his smile.

Back in an Aces uniform and on the base paths Sunday, the player nicknamed “El Tigre” toyed with his prey, Salt Lake pitcher Dillon Peters. Vargas smiled when he twice enticed Peters to try a pickoff throw to first base. When he was on third, he decoyed stealing home, running a third of the way down the line, forcing Peters to step off the pitching rubber. Vargas slinked back toward third and a crowd of nearly 5,000 roared in laughter.

Baseball is like theater. It’s dramatic, and not just for matter of winning and losing. The players’ fates are on the line in Triple-A baseball, the last stop before moving up to the majors or ending the goal of making it there.

“I know that one of these days I am going to have to get a big-boy job,”  said Aces 32-year-old backup first baseman Cody Decker. “But until then, I will play every game as if it were my last.”

After acquiring a first glove, every kid fantasizes about playing in the majors. Many pursue their dream, and some do it with undeniable enthusiasm. Vargas clearly savors every breath he takes on the field. Like so many others.

On Sunday, there were four dramatic storylines to follow at the ballpark. Each involved the love of baseball and staying in the game, cognizant that by making it to the majors might mean never having to worry about having a big-boy job. One player is on the cusp, another on the brink. One’s in heaven, and another, using a baseball metaphor, just “died.”

The departed

Kelby Tomlinson

Kelby Tomlinson, 28, might have the look of a civil servant with his glasses, but he’s a smooth fielding and rangy shortstop. There is no question about his defensive ability as a Major Leaguer. He played four seasons with San Francisco, batting .303 as a rookie. But because his average lowered every season and he could not beat out Gold Glover Brandon Crawford or second baseman Joe Panik, the Giants released him last fall.

Aces parent club Arizona Diamondbacks signed him to a Minor League contract, and for the first six weeks of the 2019 season, he was a fan favorite in Reno. But he batted just .218 and before Sunday’s game, the Dbacks announced the organization had released Tomlinson.

While a return to the majors might seem like a longshot, it’s more unlikely that Tomlinson is going to walk away from the game just yet.

Tahoe Onstage

Christian Walker, right, and Kristopher Negron chat during a game in Reno last year.
Conrad Buedel / Tahoe Onstage

In the show

First baseman Christian Walker, 28, had perhaps the greatest season in Aces’ history in 2017. He hit .309 with 32 home runs and 114 RBIs and was named the Most Valuable Player in the Pacific Coast League. But he was still in Reno for much of the 2018 season, and he continued his hitting dominance. He has nothing more to prove in the minors. But in his time with Arizona last year, he mostly was used as a pinch hitter, and his batting average was just .163.

This season, Walker needed a couple of breaks, and he got them. All-Star first baseman Adam Goldschmidt was traded to St. Louis and expected replacement Jake Lamb injured his leg. Walker has been inserted in the everyday lineup, allowing him to get into a groove and not stress about needing to prove himself with every at bat. He’s hitting .286 with seven homers and 16 RBIs. Walker is in the running to be Rookie of the Year.

Every Aces player knows about Walker and is hoping to get the same breaks.

Tahoe Onstage

Cesar Puello is congratulated in the dugout by his Salt Lake Bees teammates after slugging a grand slam.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Running out of time?

Salt Lake outfielder Cesar Puello is just 27, but he’s been a professional player for 12 years, playing in the organizations of the Mets, Yankees, Rangers, Rays, Dbacks, Giants and now is in his second stint with the Angels. He refuses to give up.

He has a great batting eye and draws a lot of walks. As did Pete Rose, Puello watches each pitch he takes all the way to the catcher’s glove. Willing to sustain some pain for the team, this year he’s been hit by 10 pitches, second most in the minors. Aces fans remember him as a savvy baserunner. A right-hand batter, his weakness this year oddly is hitting left-handed pitchers.

On Sunday, Puello was locked in on Aces relief pitcher Ben Taylor, who was in a bases-loaded jam. Puello hit the ball over the scoreboard in left field. If camaraderie with teammates indicates leadership, Puello has it. The affectionate reception in the dugout was like a homecoming.

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Ildemaro Vargas is all smiles during his second game back in Reno.

The curtain call

Like Waker, Ildemaro Vargas, 27, has nothing more to prove in the minors. He set an Aces  franchise record with a 35-game hitting streak in 2018. In three seasons with Reno, he has hit .318. His pregame ritual is to play catch with a youngster in the stands and then give him the ball when the game starts.

After spending the entire season in the big league, Vargas might have been unhappy to return to Reno. But it sure didn’t show. He pointed and waved to fans throughout the contest, joked from his shortstop position with Salt Lake baserunners. And in a most familiar sight, stood upon second base and laughed out loud after hitting a double – twice. He now has 81 for the Aces.

Since his return, he has seven hits in eight at bats. The only out was an RBI groundout.

Vargas seems destined to return to Arizona soon. But the only certain thing about “Aceball” is there will be drama.

— Tim Parsons

Tahoe Onstage

Kelby Tomlinson warms his bat in the Aces dugout during a rainy and snowy game.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Today’s Game: The Aces have dropped the first two of the series against Salt Lake as they look for their­­­­ first win of the homestand tonight. Righty Justin Vernia will make his Triple-A debut tonight for Reno when first pitch is thrown at 6:35 p.m. Vernia was an undrafted free agent signed by the Diamondbacks earlier this year and has been stellar in single-A thus far for both Kane Country and Visalia.  The Gonzaga product is 3-0 this year with a 1.41 ERA in seven appearances across the two levels. Vernia pitched for the Sioux City Explorers in Independent ball going 13-2 with a 3.32 ERA while striking out 91 over 119.1 innings. Vernia will face Bees’ righty Nick Tropeano. Tropeano has some MLB service time under his belt going 12-13 with a 4.15 ERA with the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels. He’s 0-1 in three starts with the Bees this season.

I’ll Take a Cycle, Please: May 13 is a memorable date in team history. Two years ago, PCL MVP, Christian Walker, hit for the first cycle since Collin Cowgill accomplished the feat in 2011. Walker was 4-for-6 that day in a 11-10 Aces win in twelve innings over the New Orleans Baby Cakes. Reno scored six runs in the ninth inning to tie the game at 10 and send the game to extras. Ildemaro Vargas scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch in the bottom of the 12th to seal the game for the Aces.

Hitting Machine­: Ildemaro Vargas has made an immediate impact in the Aces lineup since his return. Vargy is 6-for-7 with four extra-base hits in two games thus far. His third-inning single yesterday was his 1,000 career MiLB hit. Vargas leads all active Aces players in hits. Abraham Almonte (904) and Travis Snider (838) and the only others remotely close to Vargas for MiLB hits. Vargas is five hits away from 400 which would break the franchise record for hits currently set at 399 by Cole Gillespie.

TimmyLo Does it Again: Tim Locastro hit his third leadoff home run yesterday against Salt Lake. His other two both came against the Fresno Grizzlies on April 25 and April 28. The Aces are 2-1 when Locastro hits a leadoff home run. With the first inning blast, Locastro joined Adam Eaton, Garrett Weber, and Ildemaro Vargas as the only Aces with at least three leadoff home runs in franchise history. Weber leads the Aces with four leadoff home runs in franchise history.

Home Debut: Kevin Ginkel made his home debut for the Aces yesterday in the 7th and 8th innings. He struck out the side in both innings and totaled six strikeouts on the day.

First Start Since: Alex Young made his first start Sunday for the Aces since August 6, 2018 against the Oklahoma City Dodgers. He went six innings allowing three earned runs that day in a no-decision.  Yesterday, Young went 3.1 innings allowing one earned run while striking out six in another no-decision. Young’s 3.1 IP was his longest out of 2019. He had three previous outings of 3.0 innings out of Reno’s bullpen. Young is tied for the team-lead in strikeouts with Taylor Widener at 31.

There Goes That Man: Aces all-time saves leader, Jimmie Sherfy, was recalled by the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to tonight’s game. Sherfy is 0-1 with a 1.32 ERA and 7-for-7 in save chances in 2019 for Reno. He has 21 strikeouts in 13.2 innings this season. He is 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in 26 games pitched for the Diamondbacks in 2017 and 2018.

Happy Birthday Taylor Clarke: Today is Taylor Clarke’s 26th birthday. Year 25 was a big year for Clarke as he  announced the arrival his third child coming August 2019 and also made his Major League debut. Clarke is all over the Aces franchise record book. His 19 wins are good for fourth all-time and his 173 strikeouts are good for sixth all-time. Clarke is scheduled to throw again tomorrow in the series finale against Salt Lake.— Jake Trybulski, Aces.com

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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