Rainiers ready to start another exciting season

When the Rainiers play the opening series of their 55th season at Cheney Stadium vs. Albuquerque April 3-6, Tacoma baseball fans will find many new players to cheer for. But they won’t find some familiar names in the lineup. Pitchers Taiwan Walker and James Paxton, who were lights out for Tacoma at the end of the 2013 season, are now pitching in Seattle, while outfielder Abraham Almonte was in the Mariners’ line-up on Opening Night earlier this week.

Before the season began, a new manager had already been brought in; no, make that two. John Stearns, who managed the team for all but 27 games in 2013, leading the Rainiers to a 59-58 record, was named Seattle’s third base coach earlier this spring, and Rich Donnelly was sent to Tacoma as manager. Then Stearns went on the DL after he had surgery to repair a hiatal hernia, and Donnelly replaced him in Seattle, while Roy Howell became Tacoma’s new skipper. Howell had been with the Mariners’ organization in 2012 and 2013 as the manager in single A High Desert.

Former manager Daren Brown is serving this year as the Mariners’ roving Minor League bunting and baserunning coordinator. When he transferred to Seattle in 2013 after managing 27 games in Tacoma, Brown was the winningest manager in Tacoma franchise history, accumulating a record of 433-429 from 2007-2013. Last year Tacoma’s overall record was 76-68, two games out of first place in the Pacific Coast League’s Pacific Conference Northern Division

As of opening day, Howell’s staff consists of pitching coach Jamie Navarro, and hitting coach Cory Snyder. Navarro held the same position here in 2010 before being promoted to bullpen coach in Seattle from 2011 to 2013. Snyder spent 2011-2013 as the hitting coach with Seattle’s Double A team in Jackson.

Other members of the coaching staff include trainers Tom Newberg and B.J. Downie, and performance coach Gabe Bourland.

The Rainiers who take the field Opening Night will be a combination of players from last year (15 in all) and five of the top 30 prospects in the Mariners’ farm system. If Nick Franklin, who played 102 games as a rookie in Seattle last year, will spend at least part of his third consecutive season in Tacoma, where he played in 39 games last year.

If Chris Taylor, who was drafted in 2012, will make his Rainiers’ debut after being chosen Mariners Minor League Play of the Year in 2013 in Advanced Single A High Desert and Double A Jackson. Taylor is the organization’s ninth ranked prospect.

Playing in a combined 122 games at High Desert, Jackson and Tacoma, first baseman Ji-Man Choi, the organization’s 25th ranked prospect, made his Tacoma debut at the end of the 2013 season, He batted .295 with 18 homeruns and 85 RBIs.

OF James Jones, the 27th ranked prospect, also closed out 2013 with the Rainiers. Jones ranked fourth among Mariner minor leaguers with 28 steals.

RHPs Carson Smith and Dominic Leone are ranked as the 14th and 22nd prospects in the Mariners’ farm system and should make their Triple A debuts this year. Smith earned the organization’s Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year in 44 appearances at Double A Jackson. Leone wound up the year with a 2.25 ERA in 48 appearances with Single A Clinton, High Desert and Double A Jackson.

Also returning to Tacoma are infielders Jesus Montero, Ty Kelly, and Nate Tenbrink, along with pitchers Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer, James Gillheeney and Chance Ruffin. The Rainiers bullpen will be bolstered by relievers Logan Bawcom, Nick Hill and Lucas Luetge. Bawcom’s 2.91 ERA in 51 appearances earned him Rainiers’ Pitcher of the Year for 2013.

Former Major Leaguers Zach Miner and Ramon Ramirez are also expected to contribute to the Rainiers relief staff in their first year as players in the Mariners organization. Ten year MLB veteran Endy Chavez is expected to play his second consecutive season in Tacoma’s outfield alongside former Diamondbacks, Giants and Cubs player Cole Gillespie. Veteran catcher Humberto Quintero will share time behind the plate with Jesus Sucre, who made his Major League debut with the Mariners in 2013.

The Rainiers open the season against the Albuquerque Isotopes April 3 to 6, followed by the El Paso Chihuahuas April 7-10. For this home stand, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday games begin at 7:05 p.m., with Monday and Tuesday games starting at 6:05 p.m. The game on Saturday, April 5, starts at 5:05 p.m. and on Sunday, April 6 the game has a 1:35 p.m. start. There will be fireworks following the games on April 3 and April 4.

Tickets range from $7 (grass berm seats) to $25 (box seats). Reserved seat prices are: adult $13, children (14 and under), seniors (60 and over) and military $12. All general admission seating is on the grass berm located at the end of the right field line. Fans sitting there can bring blankets to sit on but are not allowed to bring in folding chairs or other seating.

All Rainiers games can be heard on KHHO 850 AM radio. Mike Curto begins his 16th year as the team’s play-by-play announcer. Once again legendary sportscaster Bob Robertson will join Curto on the air for every Monday home game. Robertson was the radio voice of Tacoma baseball from 1984 to 1998. He did play-by-play for Washington State University football games from 1964 to 2013 and is still part of the broadcast team, helping do pre-and post-game and half-time coverage. Robertson has been named Washington State sports broadcaster of the year 12 times. In 2004, he won the Chris Schenkel Award, given by the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. 

So get out the Sharpies and oil the gloves. The 55th season of Triple A baseball in Tacoma is about to begin (and 20th as the Mariners’ Triple A franchise). With a great mix of new and experienced players it should be an amazing year for all involved. Even the Canadian geese will probably do an opening night fly-over to commemorate the occasion.

One final note: fans might want to bring along umbrellas as the forecast calls for increasing showers, just as it did on the first Opening Night at Cheney Stadium in 1960. In fact that game was delayed for two days.

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