The couple behind me had just flown in from Yonkers two nights ago. So far they had ridden the roller coaster at New York-New York, blown three grand at the blackjack tables and now they were at the ballpark soaking up the sun and watching Zack Wheeler throw gas for the Las Vegas 51's.
Baseball isn't usually the first thing on an itinerary for a trip to Vegas. Some people come for the shows, others for the Mob museum and some like trying their luck at the casinos. On this day, the fans in attendance had wandered out to Cashman field in search of something they were missing, something from home -- baseball. In attendance were fans from all over the country, I saw folks in the crowd wearing jerseys of the Mets, Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Yankees, Red Sox and Giants -- all in one place.
Cashman is a fine Triple-A ballpark that sits behind the Neon Sign museum just a few blocks from the Pawn Stars shop off the strip. It hosts the Las Vegas 51's, a Mets affiliate named after nearby Area 51 and whose mascot looks like a blue Jar Jar Binks. I've visited perhaps a dozen minor league fields and Cashman hosts some of the friendliest staff in all of baseball. They're always willing to help, quick with a smile and ready to talk.
While there isn't any gambling in the stadium, unless you count the chance to win a free show ticket, on this day the crowd had just hit the jackpot, because two top prospects were facing off against each other -- pitcher Zack Wheeler against Nolan Arenado. Wheeler had been acquired by the Mets in exchange for Carlos Beltran back in 2011 when San Francisco was desperate for offense after losing catcher Buster Posey to injury.
Wheeler came to the Mets highly touted, earning an A- grade from John Sickels this year and is rated the Mets #1 prospect by Baseball America. It's kind of sick that he received BA's award for best curveball in the Mets system, because he consistently brings the heat sitting on 95-96 mph and mixing in a slider and change. The Rockies top prospect, third baseman Nolan Arenado received a B+ grade from John and was rated the #1 prospect in the Rockies system by BA. Nolan also earned the nod from BA as the Rockies best defensive infielder and their best hitter for average.
On this warm Sunday afternoon many in the crowd were still getting used to the heat of the desert and happily munching on food that didn't come from a buffet. Young boys were chasing down foul balls in the grassy berms near the foul poles and young girls were tanning just above them. Meanwhile, Wheeler was mowing down the Sky Sox hitters on his way to eight strikeouts when he got the better of Arenado in their first appearance, inducing a soft flyball to right field after getting ahead in the count with a runner on first.
In the second appearance Wheeler threw nearly everything he had at Arenado, starting off with three fastballs, two of which Nolan sliced foul. Then Wheeler tried the slider and Nolan fouled it straight back, just missing it. With two strikes Wheeler went to his bread-and-butter, the curveball, but he hung it slightly and Nolan went down and golfed it off the fence in the left-centerfield gap scoring Corey Dickerson who had tripled off a hanging changeup in the previous at-bat.
Wheeler dominated against most of the Sky Sox hitters, but he struggled with the heart of the order where the Colorado Springs' 3-through-5 hitters had a home run, triple and double while going 5-for-8 against him. The rest of the lineup only managed a single in thirteen appearances against the Mets prospect. Arenado chased Wheeler from the game in the sixth inning when he singled a 95 mph fastball into left field, leaving Zack with a line of 5.1 innings pitched, six hits allowed, three earned runs, no walks and eight strikeouts.
Perhaps because he's getting more comfortable with each appearance, Wheeler has increased his strikeouts in each of his first three starts from three, to six and now eight. He's moving in the right direction and will most likely get a shot in the Mets rotation sometime this year. Nolan Arenado was pushing the Rockies hard for a starting spot out of spring training and after nine games in the minor leagues Arenado is batting .441 with a .413 Isolated Slugging. It won't be too long before these two players are facing off against each other in Citi Field.
By the 11th inning the crowd was getting restless as the mercury reached 90 degrees and the craps tables began calling their name. They didn't have long to wait however as the 51's loaded the bases against sidearmer Coty Woods. Reese Havens launched a single to centerfield scoring Juan Lugares for the winning run, the crowd roared in appreciation as the players congratulated Reese near second base.
Meanwhile the family from Yonkers wandered out of the stadium, heading to watch the fountains at the Bellagio.