Playing their best poker hand | NevadaAppeal.com

Playing their best poker hand

Steve Ranson | sranson@lahontanvalleynews.com

The familiar sounds of hitters ripping the covers off baseballs or umpires calling an emphatic third strike lurk around the corner when the Reno Aces open their home season one week from today against Albuquerque.

The Aces, which begin their seventh season in Reno, opened the 2015 Pacific Coast League baseball season Thursday at Albuquerque for four games and then wrap up the short road trip with four games down the Interstate at El Paso.

As far as the coaches and players are concerned, this could be another season in which the Aces repeat the successes of the 2014 season when the team finished first in the PCL North at 81-63 and came within one game of winning the Pacific Coast League championship, losing to Omaha in five games.

Omaha went on to win the AAA title, something Reno did in 2012.

“Everyone enjoyed the ride last year like I did. I’m excited to be back, and I know the players are as well. We have another exciting group of players.”Coach Phil Nevin

"Everyone enjoyed the ride last year like I did," second-year coach Phil Nevin told ticket-holders and guests at a banquet on Monday to kick off the 2015 season. "I'm excited to be back, and I know the players are as well. We have another exciting group of players."

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Nevin, who addressed supporters on a big-screen television because he remained behind to see his son play a baseball game, said he enjoyed watching his players at spring training and feels pitching will once again be exciting for the fans to watch.

"With the pitchers, we can do anything," he said.

Many Aces supporters, though, at both the banquet and the exhibition game against the University of Nevada's baseball team on Tuesday were hoping to meet the Arizona franchise's $68.5-million man, 24-year-old Yasmany Tomas; however, the native born Cuban ballplayer wasn't expected to join the team until Thursday.

According to the Diamondbacks' website, the team wants to give Tomas playing time at both third base and in the outfield with the Aces. He was optioned to Reno on Saturday night as one of the final cuts.

"What we're trying to do is figure out a way to create at-bats for him, which is primarily the reason he didn't stay," Arizona General Manager Dave Stewart said. "If we had more at-bats and could get him more playing time, he'd be here."

The Diamondbacks asked Tomas, who was an outfielder in Cuba, to make the transition to third base during spring training.

"Our intent is when he's back here is to get him as many at-bats as we can and have him be a part of our lineup and be an impact in our lineup," Stewart said. "We believe he's going to hit."

Tomas captured much attention during the 2013 World Baseball Classic in which he had 16 at-bats in six games, recorded six hits, belted two home runs and had 13 total bases.

The pitching corps

Reno is fortunate to have Michael "Bird" Parrott returning for his 32nd year as a minor league pitching coach with the last six years coming in Reno.

"The pitching staff will be as equally as good as last year," said Parrott, who pitched in the majors for Baltimore and Seattle in the 1970s and early 1980s. "We have a good combination of right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers."

Parrott said the Aces will have a lot of experience from players who competed in the AAA and AA leagues. In addition to a good mix of pitchers, Parrott said the bullpen may be the strength of the pitching corps.

"The bullpen was very, very strong last year, and I expect them to be as strong as last year," Parrott pointed out.

The team welcomes back Jake Barrett, the team's top closer in 2014. Barrett pitched in 30 games and record 16 saves in 18 opportunities. The 6 foot, 3 inch right-hander posted a 2.82 earned run averages with Reno and Mobile, the Diamondbacks' AA team.

Derek Eitel also gave the Aces another strong arm on the mound with a 5-1 record and 2.70 ERA. He also recorded 60 strikeouts and 23 walks.

Kaleb Fleck should be a good find on the mound for the Aces after the 6-2 right-hander went 7-3 for Mobile with a 2.56 ERA and 89 strikeouts. He walked only 22 in 63 innings and led the team with 17 saves.

Tim Crabbe comes over from Louisville where he compiled a 5-7 record. The 6-4 righty had a 4.07 ERA, but he fanned 60 and walked 37 in 93.2 innings.

Another pitcher who shows promise at the AAA level is A.J. Schugel, who started in 26 games for Mobile. The 6-foot right-hander finished the season with a 6-4 record and 3.47 ERA.

Alan Webster had had experience with the Red Sox organization for each of the past three years. He split his time last year between Pawtucket in the International League and the Red Sox, compiling a 5-3 forced for Boston and 4-4 with Pawtucket.

San Francisco fans may be familiar with Dan Runzler, who played in the Giants' organization since 2007. Runzler, though, played for Fresno during the past five years with call-ups to the San Francisco Giants in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In his final season with Fresno last year, he had a 1-5 record.

Kevin Munson was 4-3 last season for Reno with a 2.53 ERA, 82 strikeouts and 22 walks. The New Jersey right-hander also played for Reno in 2013.

Splitting his time between Mobile and Reno, Willy Paredes finished the year 5-2 at Mobile. Vidal Nuno played for the Diamondbacks in 2014 but went 0-7. Robbie Ray also had major league experience last year with Detroit, 1-4, but had a strong stint at Toledo with a 7-4 record.

Solid hitting

While the pitching corps may be as solid as 2014's, hitting coach Greg Gross has been assessing his batters as he begins his third season with Reno. He said this season's hitters will be an extension from last year.

"I didn't see any problems with the group last year that made my job real easy," said Gross, who spent three years as the Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach. "From what I see in spring training, this should be an easy summer for me."

Gross said he enjoys the team's good attitude and work ethic.

"They come to work, do about their business the way they should," he pointed out. "We had a consistent spring training. I'm looking forward to the whole group."

Gross will be working with a good mix of veterans and first-year Aces. His philosophy is not to preach at the players or change them, but to help them improve and prepare them for the next level — Major League Baseball.

The Aces will rely on three catchers this season with Blake Lalli returning with the most experience. Lalli, who was drafted by the Cubs in 2006, played in 93 games for Reno. He played for both Nashville (AAA), and Milwaukee in 2013.

During the 2014 season, Lalli batted .275.

Lalli said the 2014 season was over before the players knew it. He said Reno has talented players who want to take their game to the majors.

"Everyone has personal goals, and you want to take it to that next level," he said.

Last year, Lalli and Bobby Wilson caught toprovide a good tandem for the Aces. Lalli said the competition between them was good.

"I had fun with Bobby," he said. "We pushed each other, and it worked out great."

Bringing major league experience to behind the plate is Matt Pagnozzi. The Miami, Arizona, native has seen limited action in the big leagues with St. Louis, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Houston and Milwaukee.

Pagnozzi played in 71 games for Nashville, batting .215.

The third catcher is Dallas Tarleton, who played for three teams in 2014 — Reno, Mobile and Visalia (D-backs' A team).

Nick Evans leads an experienced corps of infielders. The Reno first baseman began the season with Reno before Arizona called him up. He finished the season playing in Japan.

While in Reno, Evans ripped the cover off the ball with a .354 average, and at Arizona, he batted .273 in 22 games. The Phoenix-area native realized a childhood dream when he donned the Diamondbacks' uniform. He remembers watching opening-day ceremonies and attending the World Series in 2001 when the Diamondbacks won a dramatic seven-game series against the New York Yankees.

"It was a team I rooted for," Evans said. "It was an opportunity to play for them, more than I could ever dream of."

Evans, who began in the Mets' organization, said the current group of players is similar to 2014's roster, meaning they know how to win. He said the players have initiative and drive.

"Tgis group is very similar to the group we had last year," he said. "We can police ourselves without worry of someone telling us what to do. We have a veteran group of guys and good players too. It's going to be great."

Garrett Weber, a second baseman, took his hitting to new heights in 2014, finishing the season with a .353 batting average. The Fresno, California, native split his season between Mobile and Reno.

Third baseman Jamie Romak played for Albuquerque and the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. He had a .280 batting average, smacked 24 homers and drove in 85 runs.

Danny Worth is another player with big league experience, having played for Detroit in each of the last three seasons.

He spent the majority of time, though, at Toledo, playing in 66 games and batting.211. He had 18 homers and 27 RBI.

Danny Dorn can player either in the infield or outfield, giving the Aces some versatility on defense. Dorn played in 74 games for Reno last year, batting .304 with 12 home runs and 47 RBI.

One of the players who is expected to do a lot this year is outfielder Mike Freeman, who played for both Reno and Mobile in 2014. In 71 games he batted .307 and drove in 29 runs.

Outfielder Nick Buss spent 2014 at both Albuquerque and Sacramento where he hit. 307 and batted in 52 runs.

Peter O'Brien brings power to Reno. The Florida native played for three teams last year, finishing the season with 34 home runs and 74 RBIs. At Mobile, O'Brien hit .385.

Evan Marzill split his time at Visalia and Mobile playing in the outfield. He finished the year with a .245 batting average with eight homers and 53 RBIs.

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