Among the numerous roster moves made by the Tacoma Rainiers this season, Taijuan Walker has certainly created the most buzz with his dominant pitching during his first month in Triple-A. But on a night when the 20-year-old faced his first struggles with the Rainiers, it was lineup regular Rich Poythress who stole the show. Poythress homered twice – including a walk-off solo shot on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the 10th inning – to give the Rainiers a 6-5 win over the Tucson Padres on July 25 and keep Tacoma in a tight playoff race after recently falling out of first place.
“It’s been an interesting year,” said Poythress, in his first season in Triple-A. “I’m learning a lot of things not only about the game but about myself. I’m just working hard, and luckily the last week or so things have worked out…when it works out it’s obviously fantastic.”
The Rainiers took a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning when Ty Kelly scored on an infield single by Stefen Romero, and increased the lead to 2-0 on Abraham Almonte’s sacrifice bunt that plated Scott Savastano in the second. Poythress then drilled his first homer in the third – a line drive over the left field wall with Romero in motion on a hit-and-run – to make it 4-0.
“Rich Poythress is just killing the ball,” said Rainiers manager John Stearns. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Walker, meanwhile, retired the first six batters – four by strikeout – before allowing a solo homer to former Rainier Mike Wilson leading off the top of the third. Walker then began to struggle in the fourth, when the Padres sent nine batters to the plate and scored four runs. Gregorio Petit started the damage with a single past a diving Savastano to plate Daniel Robertson. Chris Robinson later added a two-run single, and Jesus Merchan gave Tucson a 5-4 lead with a single up the middle to score Wilson.
“He struggled a little bit,” Stearns said of Walker, who allowed five runs on six hits in five innings, with three walks and eight strikeouts. “He’s 20 years old. He’s going to need those struggles at this level. But he’s going to work through those and come out better on the other side.”
The Rainiers’ offense couldn’t answer until the bottom of the eighth, when Poythress walked with two outs and later scored on an opposite-field bloop single by catcher Jason Jaramillo to make it 5-5. That score stood until the 10th, when Poythress hammered a first-pitch fastball from Brad Brach over the left field fence to end it.
“I’ve had a lot of at-bats against Brach in the Cal League, in Spring Training in Arizona, fall stuff, everything,” Poythress said. “He’s actually a pretty good friend of mine. I figured he’d challenge me.”
Poythress finished 3-for-4 with two homers, a double, three runs scored and three RBIs.
As of July 30, the Rainiers remained one game behind Salt Lake in the standings with a 60-50 record.