WALLA WALLA — For the past three years, Wenatchee has reigned supreme over the West Coast League’s North Division.
As Sweets coach J.C. Biagi said Wednesday, the AppleSox set the bar with three straight North Division regular-season titles.
“They kind of set the bar and they set it very high,” Biagi said. “So you’re certainly aware of that going in. Your season isn’t based on what you do against Wenatchee, but if you’re doing well against Wenatchee, you’re doing well.”
Walla Walla knocked off the North’s big dog on aggregate this season, finishing two games ahead of the AppleSox in the final regular season standings, but it struggled to solve Wenatchee in head-to-head matchups, beating the AppleSox just once in four regular-season tries.
That trend continued Wednesday night, as Wenatchee retook its place in the pecking order with a 6-2, grind-it-out victory over Walla Walla to complete a two-game sweep over the Sweets in the North Division Series and advance to the WCL Championship Series.
Although the Sweets didn’t move on in the playoffs, their division-best regular-season record (31-22) was a marked improvement from a last-place finish in 2012.
“It was a big swing, it was,” Biagi said. “You go from the outhouse to the penthouse. We want to get to the playoffs, that’s kind of the background goal of any season. I don’t care where you’re at — you want to win games and get to the playoffs. That’s the name of the game. It’s a tough thing, and we were fortunate to get in.”
Wenatchee set the tone for the series with a dominant 8-4 victory in Tuesday’s Game 1, but Game 2 on Wednesday was a much more closely contested affair, despite a similar final margin.
Wenatchee took a two-run lead into the home fourth before second baseman and consonant aficionado John Skrbec launched a mammoth two-run blast over the left-field wall to even the score.
The AppleSox’ Brett Stephens led the game off with a single up the middle and stole second to reach scoring position.
That ended Sweets starter Chris Lovejoy’s no-hitter bid quickly — he came within an out of no-hitting Wenatchee in Walla Walla’s only win against the AppleSox on June 20. Lovejoy rebounded with a pair of strikeouts before Wenatchee first baseman Connor Spencer lined up the middle for a base hit and an RBI.
Spencer, who was second in the league with a .380 batting average this summer, went on to go 4-for-4 on the night with an intentional walk.
After a pair of quick outs to start the home first, Walla Walla got consecutive hits from Matt Mendenhall and Dominic Miroglio to put runners at the corners. In what became a theme for the night, however, they were stranded when Renae Martinez flew out to left to end the inning.
Both teams went three-up, three-down in the intervening innings before Wenatchee scored again in the fourth on a Brock Slavin leadoff walk, a Spencer single and a perfect Stockton Taylor bunt that traced the third baseline. Joey Jansen hit into a 4-3 double play for the first outs of the inning, but picked up an RBI in the process.
Walla Walla, which had been launching bombs into the outfield all game long but failed to find many gaps, finally had the long ball payoff in the home fourth.
Designated hitter Martinez pegged the left-field wall with a one-out liner and Skrbec launched his flare at the same spot, only about 20 feet higher, to even the game at 2 and give the Sweets a breath of life.
But a strikeout and another flyout to left ended the inning and, in another recurring theme, Walla Walla cooled off.
“I’ve always believed that you kind of create your own momentum,” Biagi said. “You create opportunities for success and at some point somebody’s got to come in and get us started, and somebody has got to come in and keep it going.
“So if that’s what we’re calling momentum, then yeah, absolutely, it was tough to get that going tonight,” he continued. “It’s tough all year long, really. Hitting a baseball and creating offense is probably one of the toughest things in all of sports.”
Things began to slip for Walla Walla in the sixth, as Wenatchee scored a pair of runs on two doubles, a single and a run-scoring wild pitch.
Down 4-2, Walla Walla had a chance to score in the seventh after a pair of fluky plays. With one out gone already, Luke Persico struck out on a wild pitch, but reached base when catcher Joey Harris’ throw to first lifted the first baseman off the bag just enough for Persico to tag safe.
Third baseman Jarod Gonzales followed with a comebacker that bounced off Wenatchee starter C.J. Burdick’s plant ankle and carried into shallow right field. That put runners at second and third for Walla Walla.
But in a show of John Wayne-worthy true grit, Burdick stayed in the game and escaped the inning with a strikeout and a lineout. Relieved in the eighth, Burdick gave up eight hits, but was able to hold Walla Walla to just two runs in seven innings pitched. He struck out seven and issued no walks.
Despite getting a leadoff walk and two singles, Walla Walla failed to score in the eighth.
Wenatchee increased its lead to the final margin, 6-2, in the away ninth with a pair of walks, a pair of hits and another run-scoring wild pitch, this time from reliever Connor Lawhead.
With their season on the line and a four-run deficit in the ninth, Walla Walla got consecutive walks and Mendenhall took a pitch to the shoulder to load the bases with just one out gone.
It wasn’t enough, however, as catcher Miroglio hit into a double play at second to end the game and Walla Walla’s year.
Lovejoy, who was relieved by Bret Helton in the seventh, gave up seven hits and four runs in 6 1/3 innings pitched. He struck out four batters and gave up one walk.
Helton pitched two innings of relief and gave up one run on three hits, two K’s and two walks.
As the Sweets milled around on the field after the loss, hugging fans, friends and family and clinging on to the last moments of their summer interlude, Biagi turned retrospective.
“It wasn’t probably statistically our best year,” he said. “Ironically, we’re last in the league in our batting average (.238) and in the middle of the pack in ERA (4.08) — all those things that we look at the back of baseball cards for — but yeah, whatever it was, we found a way to win and we did it often, to the tune of 31 times.
“For the past four years, that’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “That speaks to the quality of players we’re getting, and the quality of effort we’re getting out of those players. It was exciting. It was a good deal. Even in a game like tonight, you’re down 6-2 and you feel like you’ve got a chance, and that’s all you can really ask for from the guys.”
Wenatchee now moves on to take on the South Division’s bully, Corvallis. The Knights completed a sweep over Medford Wednesday night and takes on the AppletSox in the league’s three-game championship series. That series begins Saturday in Wenatchee.
AppleSox 6, Sweets 2
Wenatchee 100 102 002 — 6 12 0
Walla Walla 000 200 000 — 2 10 0
Burdick, Hibberd (8) and Harris. Lovejoy, Helton (7), Lawhead (9) and Miroglio.
HR — WW: Skrbec.
Hits — Wen: Stephens 3, Palmer, Slavin, Spencer 4, Taylor 3; WW: Gonzales 2, Mendenhall, Miroglio, Martinez, Skrbec, Paulson, Persico.