WALLA WALLA — If you were anywhere but Borleske Stadium on a warm midsummer’s eve Sunday, you missed an idyllic ballyard experience: a cooling
breeze whispering from right field to left, a hint of cloud painted across a sky of robin’s-egg blue, and a compelling candidate for Catch of the Year — by a fan.
In the top of the second inning of the Walla Walla Sweets’ 8-2 dismissal of the Central Oregon Bucks, farm team for the Bend Elks, Amiel Abel of La Grande, Ore., made a bare-handed grab of a foul ball while seated midway up the general admission bleachers behind the home dugout. Abel thrust his right arm between the middle and upper rungs of the guardrail for a nonchalant snag of a well-struck souvenir.
“It was coming right for me,” said Abel, who was in attendance to watch his grandson, Bucks third baseman Brendan Shaffer.
Abel’s impressive catch had the same impact on the Sweets’ division title hopes and West Coast League championship pursuit as their businesslike nonleague victory did.
But while the game didn’t count in any sense of pennant-race grammar, Walla Walla took it seriously anyhow.
“Every day, you’ve gotta come out and play as hard as you can,” said Sweets left fielder Beau Bozett, who crunched a two-run homer to left in the third inning for his first dong of the summer. “In the big games, it’s going to pay off. We push every game like it’s a big, tough game, like it’s Wenatchee.”
Wenatchee was among the remaining 10 WCL teams that played each other Sunday while Walla Walla took on a developmental squad and wrapped up its sixth nonleague win in six attempts, letting the North Division standings shift around them. The AppleSox fell 4-3 to Bend, slipping a full game behind the Sweets (23-19 in WCL) for the division’s second and final playoff berth. But Bellingham opened a half-game of first-place daylight between itself (24-19) and the essentially idle Sweets by thumping last-place Kelowna.
Walla Walla’s performance on Sunday seemed immune to the perils of scoreboard watching. The Sweets exploded for five runs in the first inning and never led by fewer than five, as a lineup dense with plucky reserves slapped 12 hits and played sound defense. Scott Silva was 2 for 3 with two runs scored and an RBI, Kris Paulino 3 for 5 and Dominic Miroglio 2 for 5 with three RBIs. A crisp Mike Paulson allowed just two earned runs on three hits and a walk while striking out six in five innings to earn the win, supported by a scoreless, hitless bullpen stuffing from Jonathan Harris, Danny Zandona and Sean-Luke Brija.
“Baseball is a game you play like you’re supposed to play it. We treated this like a West Coast League opponent,” said Sweets first baseman Jarod Gonzales, one of a handful of everyday players that got at-bats Sunday. “It (will) feel good to get back to the games that really, really matter, but everyone gave all their effort today. You have to play hard every pitch.”
That philosophy returns to a more meaningful milieu over the next two weeks, as Walla Walla closes the regular season with 12 WCL games between Tuesday and Aug. 11. The finishing kick begins with a three-game set at Wenatchee, continues with a six-game homestand against divisional opponents and concludes with a three-game series at Bend. Every conceivable postseason goody is well within reach — a playoff berth, a division title, best overall record in the WCL (and home field advantage in the postseason).
“We just need to take everything we’ve done up to this point and sum it up, on the mound and in our at-bats,” Sweets manager J.C. Biagi said. “We feel great in terms of where guys’ minds are at, where their approaches are at. It was nice to go get two wins (this weekend) and do it handily.
“I’m confident in the club we’ve got,” he added. “These guys have been in it from Day 1 and continued to stay in it. This club is committed to competing every night.”
Regardless of the stakes.
Sweets 8, Central Oregon 2
Central Oregon 000 200 000 — 2 3 0
Walla Walla 502 001 00x — 8 12 1
Allison, McIver (3), Mack (6), Painton (8) and Stiles; Paulson, Harris (6), Zandona (8), Brija (9) and Reay.
HRs: CO — none. WW — Bozett.
Hits: CO — McDonald, Stiles, Neilson. WW — Gonzales, Herkins, Persico, Paulino 3, Wylie, Miroglio 2, Silva 2, Bozett 1.