The weather for early May couldn’t have been nicer, with a game-time temperature of 68 degrees under mostly sunny skies.
The grass was luscious and thick, mowed into a circular pattern on the infield with the pitcher’s mound in the bull’s-eye.
The fans were back too, although at a pandemic-enforced limited capacity of 1,750. Some of the pomp and circumstance was missing due to restrictions to on-field entertainment, but no one seemed to mind all that much, since baseball, finally, was back.
For the first time since a Northwest League playoff game on Sept. 4, 2019, minor league baseball returned to Spokane on Tuesday with a new league, affiliate and higher caliber of players.
But the ball was carrying, and the road team had the better of it.
Eugene hit four home runs during the middle innings, running up a seven-run lead, and the Emeralds beat the Spokane Indians 9-5 in the High-A West season opener at Avista Stadium.
The Indians blasted three solo home runs, by Jack Blomgren, Michael Toglia and John Cresto, but it wasn’t enough.
Indians starter Helcris Olivarez, the Colorado Rockies’ No. 7 prospect, was done after four innings. He allowed three runs – all solo homers – and six hits and a walk with three strikeouts on 77 pitches, 45 for strikes.
Still, it was baseball and it was played before paying fans in the stands for the first time in more than 600 days.
“It’s great to see,” manager Scott Little said. “I mean, there was actually more people tonight in the stands than I thought there was going to be. I thought they were excited – you can tell that they love baseball around here.”
“You know, it literally has been, what is it been 18 months, something close to that?” Toglia said. “I mean, it just felt so good to be out there to be in full uniforms have an actual ump – not a coach behind the mound – and fans behind it too. Man, it was awesome.”
All the homers took Little a little by surprise.
“The very first one was a little shocking,” he said. “I thought it was a fly ball and next thing you know it carried way out. But you know, we got some balls up over the middle of plate and they took advantage of them. They probably went where they deserved to go.”
After a 1-2-3 first inning, Olivarez got into a little hot water in the second. With runners at first and second, Franklin Labour drilled a single to left. Cade Harris fielded cleanly and threw a dart to the plate to nail Logan Wyatt to keep it scoreless.
There was more leather in the third. Aaron Schunk backhanded a ball deep at third and fired a one-hop to Toglia, who went to a knee to make a great scoop for the out.
The first run of the year at Avista came off the bat of Emeralds catcher Patrick Bailey in the third, who skied one to left-center that just kept carrying for a solo homer.
On the first pitch of the fourth, Eugene third baseman Sean Roby hit a no-doubt shot to center off Olivarez for a 2-0 lead. Three pitches later, Diego Rincones crushed one to left-center to make it 3-0.
“You didn’t get to see the guy that you’re going to see at some point,” Little said of Olivarez. “You saw a guy that was not hitting with his secondary pitches and had to throw fastballs and left fastballs out over the plate. I can tell you one thing, (Eugene) is a good fastball-hitting team.”
Moises Ceja took over in the fifth and promptly gave up four straight singles for another run. A 5-2-3 double play helped, but Tyler Fitzgerald teed off on a 3-2 pitch for a three-run shot, and the Indians’ deficit grew to 7-0.
Rockies 2016 first-round draft pick Riley Pint, who has battled injury his entire career, pitched a scoreless sixth with two strikeouts and a walk, with a couple of balls to the backstop in between.
“The guy pitched outstanding,” Little said. “He had big misses and big hits, if that makes any sense. Gosh, he’s so electric. He’s got such a great arm and he’s a great kid and I just wish nothing for the best him and it was a good outing for him.”
The Indians got on the board in the bottom half of the sixth with a solo shot to the short porch in right by shortstop Jack Blomgren, a fifth-round pick out of University of Michigan in 2020.
It was Blomgren’s first professional hit.
“It felt great,” he said. “Anytime you can start off your season with a barrel and getting ahead. It’s always a good thing to get that first one out of the way. It’s too bad we lost but it felt good.”
Toglia, the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2019, added a opposite-field solo shot in the seventh.
“That was good to see,” Little said. “Good to see him staying on the ball.”
Patrick Bailey, the San Francisco Giants’ first-round pick in 2020, delivered a two-run single for the Emeralds in the eighth off Indians reliever Derrik Watson.
The Indians scratched out a couple of runs in the eighth on a walk, a pair of singles and a groundout, with Eddy Diaz and Willie MacIver collecting RBIs.
John Cresto delivered a solo homer for the Indians in the ninth.
“The kids didn’t give up,” Little said. “We stayed in the battle a little bit and maybe if we got a call early in the game before the (three-run) home run, it might have have been a little closer game.”
Emeralds starter Caleb Kilian went four innings and allowed two hits and no walks with nine strikeouts. Reliever Nicholas Avila picked up the win despite allowing two homers in his three innings pitched.
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