On one hand, it only took the regular nine innings this time for Lower Columbia. On the other, a full day of three NWAC tournament games beforehand — including some extra innings — meant that LCC didn’t even take to the turf at Story Field until 8:15 p.m., and didn’t leave it until well after 11.
“Probably going to find it hard to sleep tonight, but I’d rather that than 30 innings,” LCC second baseman Ethan Stacy said.
On the third hand, they’ll have a much better shot at sleeping well with the way their first-round matchup with Everett went, thoroughly trouncing the Trojans 9-1 to stay in the winners’ bracket.
Despite the delayed start, precipitation that varied from a heavy mist early to real rain in the later innings, and an early deficit, skipper Kurt Lupinksi and his staff saw just about everything they could have wanted to from their Devils, between an offense fully awakened from its slumber, a dominant outing on the hill, and sparkling defense.
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“I’m proud of our effort tonight against a really, really quality Everett club who could still make noise in this tournament,” Lupinski said. “Just proud of the start we got, and obviously the offense bringing the bats to the yard.”
In nine innings, the Devils nearly matched their scoring output from their 30-inning marathon of a Sunday at super regionals. Lower Columbia pounded out 12 hits — led by four from Stacy at the top of the order — and drew nine free passes.
“I think it took that 21-inning game, to see what it’s like to struggle for 19 innings not scoring runs,” Stacy said. “That was good for us.”
And early on, the Trojans were kind enough to hold the door open.
After Everett took a 1-0 lead in the first, Justin Stransky beat out an infield single to lead off the top of the second. A pickoff attempt sailed wild into right field, sending him all the way to third, and he ended up scoring on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Liam Kerr.
In the third, LCC loaded the bases when Kyle Parkman walked, Daniel Gernon chopped a slow roller that refused to roll foul, and Eric Luchies lasered a one-hopper up the middle that bounced off a Titan’s chest. A passed ball gave Lower Columbia the lead, and a throwing error on the very next pitch completed the clearing of the bases to make it 4-1.
Everett exited the third inning with three errors to its name, and at least two more plays that were bad bounces at best and booted balls at worst.
“It was obviously very fortunate for us that they didn’t take care of the baseball at times,” Lupinski said. “We’ve been in that same situation throughout the course of this year, so I 100% understand how that goes. But being advantageous, and being ready to jump on the opportunities… Early in the year, we had so many runners on often, but weren’t as good at that skill of jumping on it.”
The long innings drove up Everett starter Kenji Miller’s pitch count, and the lefty — who flipped in sliders all game long on March 16 to hold LCC to one run in seven innings — had to leave after just four frames.
“We’ve definitely worked extremely hard on our lefty approach, with as many lefties as we have,” Lupinski said. “Kenji is a great pitcher, we’ve seen him before, he’s pitched really well against us before. We made it a lot harder on him today with the breaking ball. We have chased that breaking ball in the past, and it hasn’t gone as well for us.”
And with the Trojans going into their bullpen and providing the runway, the Red Devils got up to full speed. Matthew Schwarz drove two runs in on a bases-loaded single in the sixth to make it 6-1. Lewis drove another run home in the seventh, and LCC added two on top of that in the ninth for extra breathing room.
“We’re as confident as we’ve ever been,” Lupinksi said. “We feel like we’re able to execute our plan at the plate, and that’s a good feeling to have.”
Meanwhile, LCC starter Ryan Pitts bounced back from an unearned run in the bottom of the first to put up six shutout frames, tying his career high for the Red Devils with a seven-inning start.
The redshirt sophomore gave up six hits, though only three left the infield. He also walked two and struck out six.
“I had the slider and the curveball today,” Pitts said. “I think that got them off-balance, got me some easy outs up in the air and on the ground, and the defense made plays.”
With the exception of the one error in the first, the Devils defense certainly did, led by Stacy. It started two batters into Pitts’ outing, with the LCC second baseman diving up the middle to glove a Konnor Palmiera shot to start a 4-6-3 double play.
In the fifth, Stacy turned a slightly more routine double play by himself, but in the eighth — with R.A. Long alum Jadon Williamson pitching — he went back to the highlight reel, fielding a short hop and flipping it with his glove to Schwarz in one motion to start the twin killing.
“When guys are making diving plays and turning two out of it, it makes my life a whole lot better. That gives me a big confidence-booster,” Pitts said.
That last double play helped Williamson face the minimum in his two innings of relief; he followed it by striking out three of the final four batters the Trojans sent to the plate.
And after two years with no postseason, and a very long day at the yard, the Devils finally got to spill over the rail at Story Field and celebrate an NWAC Championship win. They’ll face Mt. Hood, which upset Tacoma in the first round, at 7:35 p.m., Friday.
“It feels right to have this tournament in Longview, it feels great to get the community out,” Lupinski said. “It has been too long…Our third-year guys have put in so much work and never had the postseason. Now for them to taste that, and to get a victory, those are the reasons why you coach.”