WALLA WALLA — Sean-Luke Brija could only hold his head toward the sky in relief as the entirety of his Walla Walla Sweets teammates rushed the mound in the ninth inning Friday night.
Called upon to work two innings out of the bullpen, the Bellingham Bells rallied off the right-hander to take a late lead until Jake Wylie’s clutch two-run, pinch hit single put the Sweets back in front in the bottom of the eighth.
With runners at first and third and two out in the ninth, Brija induced a fly out to left field to seal a dramatic 4-3 victory at Borleske Stadium.
It’s the type of moment Brija lives for as a closer, but the challenge is never a simple task.
“It’s adversity,” Brija said. “It’s baseball, but that’s the moment I love ... And our offense was clutch tonight.”
That offense struggled mightily in the early going however, as Bells starter Andrew Olson struck out the side in the bottom of the first. Three of Olson’s five strikeouts were handed to second baseman John Skrbec Friday night, who leads the team in hits, at-bats, RBI, and is tied for the lead in home runs. He is also second on the team in runs scored and doubles, but leads the club with 31 strikeouts.
Designated hitter Nick Vilter picked Skrbec up with a double down the left field line in the fourth inning, his third of the year. Two hitters later, after fouling off four consecutive pitches, third baseman Jarod Gonzales drew the count full before he laid into an Olson offering and sent it over the right field wall for his second home run of the season, putting the Sweets ahead 2-1.
Bellingham already held a 1-0 advantage by the third inning courtesy of center fielder Jack Meggs’s leadoff double to the right field wall. He scored on second baseman Ryan Yamane’s groundout to second base, just one of the two earned runs starting pitcher Sean Silva allowed on the evening. In arguably his best outing this season, the fan-selection All-Star tossed seven strong innings, striking out four of a season-high 29 batters faced. He completed the seventh, but exited with the game tied at 2-2 after Bellingham left fielder Christopher Beall scored on shortstop Johnny Farrington’s RBI single up the middle.
Then it got interesting.
Brija took the mound in the eighth and quickly found himself in a jam as third baseman Alex Calbick hit a ground-rule double to right-center field. Designated hitter Michael Annunziata followed with an RBI single in the next at-bat, giving Bellingham a 3-2 lead. As the Bells rallied and Annunziata stood at third base, Brija fielded a chopper back to the mound and tossed to home plate on a heads-up play for the second out, eliminating a would-be insurance run.
“I was throwing really good pitches,” Brija said of his outing. “They just kept hitting them.”
The Sweets offense fought back in the bottom of the eighth. Vilter drew a walk before All-Star first baseman Matt Mendenhall singled and All-Star catcher Renae Martinez reached on another base on balls, forcing Bellingham to draw from its bullpen. Left-hander Marc Huberman entered with the bases loaded and threw just one pitch. That lone offering was to pinch hitter Jake Wylie, who drilled it into center field to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs. Martinez was thrown out at third base on the play to end the inning, but not before Walla Walla took a 4-3 lead into the ninth.
Wylie’s approach to the at-bat was influenced by his teammates, some of whom had faced Huberman before. Their advice? Swing away.
“They told me I’d get a 92 mph fastball right down the middle,” Wylie said. “They said to be ready for it.”
Brija met more trouble in the ninth as Meggs led the inning off with a single. He was thrown out on a ground ball double play but Yamane drew a walk to continue the inning. Calbick singled to right field, driving Yamane all the way to third base, but Brija induced a fly out to left field to seal the 4-3 win, collecting his first victory of the year.
Walla Walla 4, Bellingham 3
Bellingham 001 000 110 — 3 11 0
Walla Walla 000 200 02X — 4 8 0
Olson, Sandefur (6), Huberman (9) and Beall. Silva, Brija (8) and Martinez.
HR — WW: Gonzales.
Hits — Bellingham: Farrington, Yamane, Calbick 2, Annunziata, Kirby, Angerer 2, Beall, Bailey, Meggs 2; WW: Lindell, Vilter, Mendenhall 2, Gonzales, Wylie, Paulino, Silva, S.