WALLA WALLA — Many familiar pieces were in place to expedite the Walla Walla Sweets’ midseason surge, prolong their winning streak and keep them tied with nemesis Wenatchee atop the West Coast League’s Northern Division Sunday at Borleske Stadium.
After falling behind immediately, the Sweets rallied behind respectable starting pitching, remarkable infield defense and the style of rally — improvised, ad-libbed, serendipitous — that fans have come to expect from their pennant-stalking club.
But winning the second half of what ended up a 4-3 loss to Klamath Falls was clearly insufficient.
“The bottom line is, you’ve gotta win the whole thing,” Walla Walla skipper J.C. Biagi said bluntly. “The light’s gotta go on a little bit.
“It was kind of an average game — nothing really bad, nothing really great. We just needed to turn on the afterburners a bit, offensively.”
Wenatchee (17-10) beat Kitsap 7-6 Sunday to take sole possession of first place, a result that went final just as the Sweets and Gems were getting under way.
What began grimly had morphed into something hopeful for the Sweets (16-11) by the middle innings. Klamath Falls, looking to avert the three-game sweep, had landed a crisp early jab on a two-run home run by Cody Hough with two outs in the top of the first inning.
Hough’s fifth bomb of the year — giving him the WCL home run lead — made it 2-0 against Sweets starter Chris Lovejoy.
But like his mates in the rotation have done all year, Lovejoy was able to steady himself and give the offense a chance. He allowed a run in the top of the fourth but none after through the sixth.
The Walla Walla offense, meanwhile, threatened early and delivered eventually. After marooning six baserunners — three in scoring position — over the first five panels, the Sweets broke through against Gems reliever Ian Buckles, fresh in from the bullpen in the bottom of the sixth in support of starter Brandon Horth.
Nick Vilter turned on Buckles’ first offering and lost it in the trees behind the left field wall.
Eight of Buckles’ next nine pitches were balls, producing walks for Jarod Gonzales and Dominic Miroglio with no outs. Scott Silva bunted both runners forward 90 feet, and consecutive Klamath Falls errors allowed Gonzales and then Miroglio to score, tying the game.
Getting into the Gems’ bullpen had been the plan, Biagi said.
“Horth has thrown well all year. He’s one of the proven guys in this league,” said Biagi. “We tried to make him go deep in counts.”
Buckles buckled but didn’t break. After Sweets reliever Danny Zandona retired Klamath Falls in order in the top off the seventh, Buckles stared down his biggest crisis of the game without a twitch. John Skrbec raked a sharp single into left to begin the bottom off the inning. Buckles balked Skrbec to second while facing Vilter, and Vilter’s sacrifice fly to deep right ushered Skrbec to third base.
The go-ahead run for Walla Walla at third, Buckles whiffed Gonzales looking on a back-door curve that nicked the outside of the outside of the outside corner, then coaxed a groundout by Miroglio.
The lost momentum was seized by the Gems in the top of the eighth, with Jack Karraker delivering the kind of clutch hit that had just eluded the home team. His two-out flare into right field plated Cameron Newell ahead of Beau Bozett’s throw, and Buckles retired six of the final seven batters he faced to knock the Sweets out of first place.
“Guys are relaxed but competitive,” said Biagi, assessing the big picture as his team packed up gear and prepared for a road-and-ferry trip to Victoria, B.C., where its six-game road trip begins today. “This is a process. It’s never going to be exactly where you want it if you have aspirations.”
Klamath Falls 4, Sweets 3
KF 200 100 010 — 4 8 2
WW 000 003 000 — 3 8 0
Horth, Buckles (6) and Trezek; Lovejoy, Zandona (7) and Martinez.
HRs: KF: Hough. WW: Vilter.
Hits: KF — Dahl, Trezek, Hough 2, Brewster, Newell, Karraker, Tittle. WW — Martinez 2, Skrbec, Vilter 2, Miroglio, Silva, Bozett.