There were lots of reasons the Cowlitz Black Bears struggled so mightily in their first 25 games or so.
The starting pitching might’ve been chief among them. Cowlitz manager Grady Tweit couldn’t figure it out and knew his staff was better than its constantly-soaring ERA. Then things changed, and it came from everyone.
Nate Packard, who entered Wednesday’s start against the Kelowna Falcons with an ERA north of 8.00, tossed four very solid innings, allowing just an unearned run on three hits, helping Cowlitz to a 4-2 win over Kelowna to open a brief two-game series and a season-best five-game winning streak.
“This is who I thought we had right here,” Tweit said. “They’re scrappy and they manufacture runs, create runs. They’re electric and they throw strikes. That’s exactly what I thought I had.”
Packard was a start at Tacoma CC before enrolling at the University of Portland, but struggled in his first season of Division I ball as well as his first few appearances in the West Coast League.
But Wednesday, he was great. His fastball was heavy. His breaking ball was sharp and tunneled of the fastball. Out of Kelowna’s three hits off him, one was solid and two were ground balls through a hole somewhere.
The quality outing, though just four innings, allowed Cowlitz to change another of its struggles: an early deficit that is so hard to crawl out of.
In the five-game winning streak, Cowlitz has flipped the early part of the game. While the Black Bears were struggling, the first innings were almost always disastrous. And when they weren’t, it was the second or third inning.
Cowlitz has been so much better at clean defensive first innings and productive offensive first innings, even manufacturing runs and taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes.
Take Wednesday, for instance.
Nate Packard, who entered Wednesday’s start nursing an ERA north of 8.00, went 1-2-3 in the top of the first, getting largely weak contact from Falcons hitters.
It set up the bottom of the inning, which Austin Bell dumped the first pitch of the inning into right field, breaking his bat in the process.
With Andres Sosa at the plate, Bell took off for second right as Tucker Grote picked behind him. Bell was dead to rights, but James Shimashita’s throw to shortstop Richi Sede Edurdo somehow leaked into center field, allowing Bell to charge into third.
Not long after, Sosa lined one through the hole at short past Edurdo and Bell scored, then an error let Sosa get to second. A Ryan Kim sac fly moved him to third, but strikeouts of Luke Price and Braden DeBenedictis ended the inning with a single run.
It was okay, though, as an early lead is always welcome.
“Pitching with a lead is better than pitching from behind,” Packard said. “It’s always good to attack hitters. It takes a little pressure off you.”
It didn’t last that long though.
James Shimashita lined one up the middle for a one-out hit, then Edurdo rolled one up the middle with eyes to put a couple runners one with one out.
Then Ezra Samperi bounced one high that third baseman Zack Smith had to hurry to go to second with. Perhaps he should’ve gone to first, because his running across-body throw skipped past Sam Ireland at the bag and Shimashita scored, tying the game.
Kelowna eventually loaded the bases with two outs after No. 9 hitter Johnny Carr walked after a Brandon Hope strikeout, threatening to sneak past Cowlitz in that top of the second, but Packard got Austin Butler to ground out weakly to Ireland at second to strand three.
True, Kelowna responded with a run. But it could’ve been so, so much worse.
“Nate’s struggles were because he had to play for four outs, not three outs,” Tweit said. “(Reliever Kyle) Smyth came back too after we didn’t catch a ball for him and he didn’t bury his chin a little bit. He said, ‘Okay, we’re playing for four outs again.’ That’s the mentality. Forget it. Good after bad.”
Cowlitz is also doing the little things really well, like taking free bases when they’re presented.
Smith reached on an infield single then James Arakawa walked behind him. With runners at seance and third, Smith decided to take a chance.
Noticing less-than-focused throws back to Grote, he took off on a delayed steal and swiped third. It was a big play because Sam Ireland beat out a potential double play ball up the middle that scored Smith, retaking the lead at 2-1 for Cowlitz.
It’s those kind of plays that make the difference. Scoring runs without hits is really important, and Cowlitz has started to do those kinds of things
“We have to be aggressive,” Tweit said. “Just going station to station, we’re not that kind of team. Even if we’re talking about being down 2-0 early, you still gotta be aggressive. We gotta re-set the tone again. We gotta come back and play our game. We got off our game too much. We were always worried about that. You gotta flush it and do what we do best, and that’s taking advantage of somebody’s head down or not playing catch and hunting nineties all the time.”
Cowlitz added runs in the sixth and eighth, when Josh Marchese walked in Austin Bell after reliever Ian Turner walked the bases loaded, then issued the RBI free pass to Marchese, who pinch hit for Braden DeBenedictis.
Arakawa then drove in Smith in the penultimate frame after Smith dropped a bloop double into shallow left to double Cowlitz’s lead 4-2.
Kelowna grabbed its last run of the game in the sixth when Marcus Guarin reached after a fly ball to right center went in and out of Bell’s glove for a two-base error, then Shimashita drove him in with a base hit past Ireland at second.
But Cowlitz’s late add-on was enough and Rance Pittman slammed the door for his fifth save behind a 1.93 ERA.
The five-game winning streak has the Black Bears bouncing around the first base dugout at David Story Field again, excited and having fun.
“I think guys are excited,” Packard said. “We’re starting to play a little better baseball and things are falling our way a little bit. We’re just kind of riding the wave right now and hopefully we can keep it going. It’s good to have things go our way for once,”
Cowlitz wraps up its homestand on Thursday against Kelowna at 6:35 p.m. then has a short trip to Ridgefield to take on the Raptors on Friday and Saturday, then hosts Kelowna again on Monday before three games at Port Angeles and two at home against Bend before the All-Star Game.