WALLA WALLA — The difference between morbid dread and bulletproof serenity is 120 feet, give or take, at Borleske Stadium whenever Walla Walla Sweets closer Sean-Luke Brija is on the mound with a lead.
That is the distance between the home and visitor’s dugouts. Inhabitants of the former mark Brija’s presence with supreme confidence, while those bunkered in the latter are tempted to look away.
Brija is the Anton Chigurh of the West Coast League. For those unfamiliar with ‘No Country For Old Men,’ this means that if you see him, you are done, over, out of cards.
When his infield had finished twisting an around-the-horn, 5-4-3 double play to close out a 5-4 victory over Kitsap on Independence Day, Brija pumped his fists and roared. His league-leading seventh save put an explosive exclamation mark on a win that kept the Sweets (14-10) tied for first place with Wenatchee in the WCL North.
“He brings a whole bunch of confidence. It permeates everyone else,” said Walla Walla left fielder Kramer Lindell. “He might be the most confident guy on the team. He’s a shut-down guy.”
Brija shrugged off some bad luck — a one-out, lost-in-the-sun single by Bluejacket Andy Lack — and some clutch hitting — Alex McKeon’s ensuing base hit — to put Kitsap away in the top of the ninth. Justin Gheorge chopped a ground ball to third with runners at the corners. Sweets third baseman John Skrbec fielded it cleanly and whipped a throw to second baseman Scott Silva, and Silva pivoted on the bag and fired to first baseman Matt Mendenhall to end the game.
And Brija howled.
“He’s been pretty reliable,” Walla Walla coach J.C. Biagi said.
Brija’s ninth saved Jonathan Harris’ first victory of the season in his fifth start while nudging the closer’s summer line into even filthier waters. Brija has not allowed an earned run in 11 1/3 innings spanning 11 appearances. He has 16 strikeouts. He has walked two.
“He’s been in some jams, been in some spots that could be perceived as critical,” said Biagi, “and he comes through. It has been an ‘end-it’ type of thing.”
Brija was the last of four relief pitchers to toil in support of Harris, who was at his best when relying on a low-90s fastball that he kept down and on the edges. Lindell spotted Harris a quick lead when he roped the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the first over the wall in left for a solo home run. After Kitsap tied it 1-1 in the top of the third and scored two unearned runs in the fifth, Lindell struck again, skimming a two-run double into the left-field corner during the Sweets’ four-run rally in the bottom of the inning.
The timing made Harris eligible for the win, and relief stints by Connor Dillman, Drew Christina, Connor Lawhead, Sean Silva and finally Brija secured it.
“He keeps learning, keeps growing; it’s going to be a worthwhile summer for him,” Biagi said of Harris. “He started out remarkably efficient today. We got him away from his breaking ball. He has a (good) fastball. We want him to have the confidence to throw it in any situation.”
Harris allowed just one earned run on three hits and two walks, with two strikeouts.
Lindell, meanwhile, finished 2-for-2 with six total bases. He reached base safely in all four plate appearances, raising his batting average to .384 (second in the WCL) and OPS to 1.077.
“I think in most places, he’d bat third. But he’s kind of our best guy,” Biagi said. “We want to get him as many plate appearances as possible.”
Over the final four innings, Walla Walla relievers stranded seven runners, including four in scoring position. Kitsap pulled to within one with a solo marker in the top of the eighth, and Brija’s ebullience after the final out reflected the taut, tenuous nature of the win.
“Throughout the season, you run into situations that take some grit to get through,” Biagi said. “You get in close games. In years past, we haven’t been able to hold on. This group has displayed toughness. It is a group that does what needs to be done.”
“We stepped up when we needed to,” added Lindell. “Guys were working hard in the heat. I liked our work ethic today.
“We’ve continued to come together. I like what we’re becoming.”
Sweets 5, Kitsap 4
Kitsap 001 020 010 — 4 9 1
WW 100 040 00x — 5 9 2
McCasland, Lunde (7), Fry (8) and Dhanani, McKeon (7); Harris, Dillman (6), Christina (7), Lawhead (7), Se. Silva (8), Brija (9) and Martinez.
HRs — WW: Lindell.
Hits — Kitsap: Lack 3, McKeon, Sheehan 2, Sablan, Hendrickson, Jewett. WW: Lindell 2, Martinez Skrbec, Mendenhall, Persico, Reay, Sc. Silva, Bozett.