WALLA WALLA — Even the midsummer light show that played out across the muggy night sky at Borleske Stadium Tuesday couldn’t provide the Sweets the spark they needed to get their first West Coast League win in four tries.
The Cowlitz Black Bears, on the other hand, picked up their fourth win in five contests as they handed Walla Walla a 4-1 loss in a game that featured three balks, a number of fluky plays and bad breaks for Walla Walla, and a 50-minute rain and lightning delay that pushed the conclusion of Tuesday’s game closer to 11 than 10 p.m.
Walla Walla starter Bret Helton provided 6 1/3 strong innings, striking out eight and walking one batter. He scattered eight hits but gave up just one run before being relieved by Joe Arlt in the sixth inning.
But Walla Walla wasn’t able to crack Cowlitz starter Dominic Mazza despite getting runners aboard in all but three innings, giving Helton his first loss of the season.
“It was kind what we’ve come to expect with Bret on the mound,” Sweets manager J.C. Biagi said. “He brings some unique elements to the table. He’s got a decent slider that he can work with and his fastball is certainly there most of the time.
“Certainly he did enough tonight to keep us in the game, we just didn’t get it done for him.”
Walla Walla struggled with clutch hitting on the night, going just 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, and had two runners gunned down while attempting to steal second base.
Combined with back-to-back balks followed by a throwing error in the seventh inning that helped the Black Bears put up the winning runs, it was a frustrating way to lose the ballgame.
“It may not show up on the board,” Biagi said, “but we threw away two runs there and we can’t afford to do that. That’s really what we’ve been very successful at doing, taking care of the ball, and tonight we didn’t do that.”
With the loss, Walla Walla (19-15) drops into second place behind Wenatchee (20-14) in the North Division.
Cowlitz’s win keeps it in third place in the South Division, two games back of league-leading Corvallis.
Leadoff batter Kyle Knigge got Cowlitz off to a strong start, looping a single into left field and coming around to score on a Devyn Bolasky comebacker to give Cowlitz a 1-0 lead. Bolasky stole second and took third on a wild pitch with one out gone, but Helton got a fly out to center and caught Paul Martinez looking to escape the inning.
Walla Walla was quick to answer, as leadoff man Kramer Lindell singled up the middle, took second on the first balk of the day, a failed pickoff attempt, and scored on a Jared Gonzalez hit that dropped in just inside the right baseline.
After shortstop Nick Vilter skied out to right, Renae Martinez hit a two-out single to the same spot as Gonzales to put runners at the corners, but Mike Paulson lined out to left to end the frame.
With the score knotted at one, neither team managed a run until the fateful seventh despite a combined 11 base runners in the intervening innings.
“It took me the first inning to get settled in,” Helton said. “And then once I did, I was comfortable. Most of my pitches were working, they just got the bat on some balls I wish that they didn’t.”
Play was suspended due to lightning with two outs gone in the away fourth, but both pitchers returned to the game despite the almost-hourlong break.
“It’s an uncontrollable,” Biagi said of the lightning, which lit up the sky intermittently for the length of the evening. “It’s something you can’t prepare for, but guys just go in the club house, come back out and warm up. It’s the same for both teams, you’re kind of on equal ground in that sense, so you just kind of keep your mindset right and make sure you’re still prepared to go out.
“Obviously it didn’t affect the outcome, the outcome was decided in later innings anyway.”
With runners at second and third in the sixth, Sweets first baseman Matt Mendenhall hit a two-out line drive to center that would have given Walla Walla the lead, but Black Bears center fielder Austin Brebeck made a spectacular diving catch to rob him of the RBI.
Helton fanned the leadoff batter in the seventh, but the Sweets struggled to get outs after that. Corey VanDomelen took a free pass to first in the next at-bat and advanced to second on a balk when Helton failed to come to a complete stop before beginning his windup. A single from Knigge brought VanDomelen around to score and sent Helton to dugout.
Knigge took second on what would have been a pickoff at first for the second out of the inning, but instead was ruled a balk on Arlt, bringing Biagi onto the field to discuss the call.
“The second (balk), I was told he crossed the plane of the rubber on the pickoff,” Biagi said. “The foot can’t go over the backside of the rubber, and that’s what he (the umpire) felt like happened, so that’s what happened.”
Ryan Aguilar hit a hard grounder up the middle in the next at bat which second baseman Scott Silva laid out to knock down, but Silva’s desperation throw to first sailed over Mendenhall’s outstretched glove and Knigge scored on the error.
Arlt finally stemmed the bleeding with a strikeout and a fly out to end the inning, but the damage was done.
Mazza retired the side in order in the Sweets seventh and Walla Walla couldn’t get a clutch hit after getting a leadoff single and two walks to load the bases in the eighth.
Cowlitz tacked on another run in the eighth on a single, a double and a sac-fly to center.
Black Bear closer Brian McAfee got a strikeout, a fly out and a groundout to pick up a save.
“Tonight was a little bit unique, because the guy they threw (Dominic Mazza), he had a really quality change up that he was throwing in very irregular counts,” Biagi said. “He’s throwing them in 3-1, 2-0 and 2-1 counts, but tonight, really, it came down to our failure to make the adjustment and just recognize what he’s trying to do and just bring some kind of counterattack. We just didn’t do that tonight.”
Walla Walla takes on the Black Bears tonight in the second game of the three-game series at 7:05.
COWLITZ 4, WALLA WALLA 1
Cowlitz 100 000 201 — 4 12 0
Walla Walla 100 000 000 — 1 6 1
Mazza, Omana (8), McAfee (9) and Recio. Helton, Arlt (7) and Martinez.
Hits — Cowlitz: Knigge 2, Aguilar 3, Bolasky 4, P. Martinez 2, Pinkston; Walla Walla: Lindell, Skrbec 2, Gonzales, Martinez, Paulino.