WALLA WALLA — Left-hander Matt Hall struck out 10 over 6 2/3 innings while Jarod Gonzales, Spencer O’Neil, and Luke Persico collected two hits apiece on Wednesday as the Walla Walla Sweets celebrated Fan Appreciation Night with a 5-2 victory over the Kelowna Falcons to complete a three-game sweep of the West Coast League baseball series at Borleske Stadium.
Wednesday’s win, Walla Walla’s fifth straight, kept the Sweets tied atop the WCL North Division with Wenatchee heading into the final weekend of regular-season play. Both teams are 28-22.
“This time of year, it becomes real,” Walla Walla manager J.C. Biagi said of the playoff chase. “There comes a time when you realize you have a good ballclub. This is reminiscent of 2011.”
Kelowna, the North Division’s cellar dweller, slipped to 17-34.
The Falcons flew out of their cage quickly with a run on three consecutive hits to begin the top of the first inning.
Walla Walla evened the score in the home first. Gonzales singled with one out, went to second on an infield grounder to third, and scored on a Mike Paulson double down the right-field line.
The Sweets grabbed a 2-1 edge in the second inning when O’Neil launched a 1-1 pitch from Kelowna starter Austin Rice into the right-center field bleachers for his second home run of the season.
Hall, who improved his 2013 record to 5-2, was replaced by Jonathan Harris with a runner on and two out in the seventh. Harris ended the frame by getting Nathan Robertson to ground out to shortstop.
“It was a tough start to the first inning,” Hall said. “It was a matter of getting the feel for it out there, starting to realize the hitters, and becoming more comfortable.”
“The first inning was totally uncharacteristic,” Biagi said. “But he settled down and got into his off-speed stuff. He’s effective when he can get to both sides of the plate.”
Walla Walla’s one-run lead increased in the last half of inning seven. Falcons’ relief pitcher Scotland Church issued a bases-loaded walk to Nick Vilter to make it 3-1.
Two batters later, Renae Martinez blooped a two-run double just inside the left-field foul line to give the Sweets a four-run cushion, 5-1.
Prior to his two-bagger, Martinez was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
“All I got were curveballs,” Martinez said of his first four plate appearances. “I went into that last at-bat thinking curveballs. I sat on one and muscled it out there. It did the job.”
“Once we got into the bullpen, our guys settled in and were more patient at the plate,” Biagi said.
Walla Walla hurler Josh Wagner, who relieved Harris and registered a key strikeout to end a Kelowna threat in the eighth inning, walked the first two Falcons’ batters in the ninth.
Jesse Houser entered and fanned Jeffrey Bohling for the first out of the inning, but allowed an RBI single to Darren Kolk.
Sean-Luke Brija spelled Houser and recorded his league-leading 11th save after retiring Robertson on a pop-up to second base and Grayson Porter on a grounder to second.
“I thought there was a chance I’d come in, so I stayed ready,” Brija said. “It’s more than a game to me, so it’s easy to stay focused and mentally prepared.”
“We need to take every game as if it means something,” Hall said. “The defense played great and the offense came around.”
Walla Walla opens a three-game series Friday at Bend.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” Brija said. “It keeps the game competitive.”
“This (the sweep of Kelowna) was a good way to gain momentum,” Hall said. “We need to play like we have been lately and at least get a playoff berth.”
Sweets 5, Kelowna 2
Kelowna 100 000 001 — 2 9 2
Sweets 110 000 30X — 5 10 1
Rice, Church (6), Dunnington (7) and Pentland; Hall, Harris (7), Wagner (8), Houser (9), Brija (9) and Martinez.
HR — Sweets: O’Neil.
Hits — Kelowna: Kolk 3, Klemm 2, Robertson, Porter, Pentland, Benjamin; Sweets: Gonzales 2, O’Neil 2, Persico 2, Paulson, Skrbec, Martinez, Mendenhall.