Wednesday’s middle game against the Yakima Valley Pippins was crucial. All the way up until it wasn’t.
Cowlitz fell behind early, rallied for one of its trademarked seemingly unlikely comeback wins, winning the three-game series with Yakima Valley with a 5-4 win. But it didn’t matter. Corvallis finished off its own 5-4 win over Bellingham, putting the Knights up five games on the Black Bears with four games to play, ending their season after a fantastic second-half run that was only spoiled by a 10-game stretch after the All-Star Break.
“It’s been a great group,” manager Grady Tweit said. “It’s the epitome of what we talked about from Day 1. I’ll keep saying it the whole year: Trust the Process. Don’t trust the results, trust the process. Regardless of the outcome — and obviously you broke the news to me, bad luck tonight — mathematically we’re done. I’m happy. I’m really proud of these guys. They worked their butts off all summer, and learning how to win, learning to stay in a game and it does take 27 outs and all that stuff.”
Wednesday was an absolute microcosm of Cowlitz’s season.
Cowlitz started poorly, finishing the first half in fourth place with a 10-17 record. Wednesday, Cowlitz started poorly, spotting Yakima Valley a 4-0 lead when Brian Rice took Jacob Rutherford out of David Story Field and into the Myklebust Gym parking lot.
Cowlitz overcame its poor start and started playing well, winning more games, winning more series, embarking on an eight-game winning streak that snaked from first half to second half to put itself in the middle of the hunt for a playoff spot. Wednesday, Cowlitz slowly chipped away, never scoring more than a run in the inning but putting pressure on their opponent with admittedly un-flashy baseball but success nonetheless.
Cowlitz wasn’t a dinger-hitting, strikeout-throwing, web gem-making team. Not by any means. And that’s no knock. But you cant say they are boring. They are not.
“We scored in almost every aspect possible,” Tweit said. “I like to keep it at least interesting for ‘em, for the fans. That goes back to grinding ABs. Grinding, hunting the extra 90 feet, and they’ve done a heck of a job of just finding ways to keep us here, especially in the last 12 games.”
Rutherford’s solid stretch came to end on Wednesday.
His night only lasted an inning and change, allowing four runs (all earned) on four hits with three strikeouts and two walks.
One of those hits, though, was the killer.
After Yakima Valley loaded the bases with no outs, Brian Rice took him yard out of David Story Field, clearing the bases and giving Yakima a 4-0 lead.
With a loss ending the Black Bears season, it was once again time for Cowlitz to do what it’s done for much of the second half: mount a comeback.
And come back it did.
Jayden Hanna plated Josh Marchese in the second with a sac fly, getting one of the four runs back.
Andres Sosa scored on a wild pitch in the third after leading off with a single and grabbing two bases on an earlier wild pitch.
Hanna picked up his second RBI of the night in the fourth, plating Zack Smith after the Cowlitz shortstop walked and stole second standing up.
Then Jhamonte Woods pinch hit in the sixth, got to third by way of a wild pitch and a groundout, then scored on another groundout, this one from Colton Titus, as Cowlitz climbed back in it, keeping its season temporarily alive with its grinding and opportunistic style.
But none of that was possible without the stellar relief performance of Sam Lauderdale.
The Vancouver native and Washington State lefty, Lauderdale made the very best of a bad situation.
He came in for Rutherford with one out in the second with four runs already in and two runners on.
He caught a break when Grant Gorrell got thrown out trying to steal second, then coaxed a little fly out to center to end the threat.
“That’s hard to do,” Tweit said. “I don’t care what pitcher you are, where all of a sudden you gotta to go the bullpen early like that. You’re not expecting to get yourself hot and focused in. That’s probably one of the hardest things to do in this game, other than somebody hit it off their foot or something with two strikes on ‘em. To come in and go 3 2/3 of no-run baseball, they weren’t stress-free.”
But his stress pitches weren’t done.
Yakima Valley loaded the bases in the fourth, but were turned away with a groundout. Though Lauderdale was lovely in relief — 3 2/3 innings, three hits, no runs three Ks and two walks — he never went 1-2-3 in an inning, constantly pitching with runners on while desperately trying to keep Cowlitz in the game and allow the comeback to come to fruition.
It made the nearly four shutout innings all that more impressive.
“I was just trying to get outs and throw zeroes up on the board,” Lauderdale said. “If they’re hitting the ball, I don’t care. If they score, that’s what I’m worried about."
It was the kind of performance that Cowlitz needed throughout its season — someone to step up and save the game, to win the game, to give the team a chance to make a push.
It was the kind of performance Cowlitz had been getting since the end of June, and it turned the season around.
Though the Black Bears fell short of a playoff spot — and potentially a super-fun series in Portland to fight for the second half playoff spot — it took a monumental effort to just get to this point, to be playing its 60th game with stakes on the line.
It seemed so far away two months ago.
““It is tough for people like yourself or the general fan right now to understand that, but they didn’t see the guys out there busting their humps,” Tweit said. “When you don’t know the guys — like I got to know them right away — they’re field rats, man. They didn’t want to leave the field. They wanted to get better and figure it out. Don’t get me wrong, there were some low points like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But every day I’d show up at noon and they’d be out here and they’d meet me and they’d come to work. That’s why I saw it and everybody had to ride the wave.”
Cowlitz finishes the series with Yakima Valley on Thursday at 7:05 p.m. The later start is due to fireworks after the game. Then The Black Bears play out the string with Portland, who is not yet eliminated. A chance to play the spoiler.