WALLA WALLA — It was not the ideal game-day recipe for success.
The Walla Walla Sweets’ marathon bus ride, starting in Medford, Ore., at 10 p.m. Monday night and creeping into Walla Walla around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday morning was, in catcher Dominic Miroglio’s words, “brutal.”
“It is what it is,” said Sweets skipper J.C. Biagi. “A 9-, 10-hour bus ride, and the seats lean back all of four inches.”
Bret Helton prepared for his West Coast League start Tuesday night against Northern Division nemesis Wenatchee by stealing what little sleep he could on the bus — “I tried,” he said — then tacking on a five-hour nap after getting home.
“I was able to get a little comfortable,” he said, regarding the red-eye voyage, but “it was long.”
Rather than serving as preamble to a lethargic homecoming — or torpedoing the momentum of a three-game winning streak — the epic nocturnal journey forced the Sweets to focus. Helton set the tone on the mound, and opportunistic hitting and crisp infield defense amplified it as the Sweets extracted a 2-0 victory at Borleske Stadium.
The win boosted their season-best WCL winning streak to four.
“After that kind of ride, it’s all about focus,” said Helton, who pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings to earn the win. “We were really solid, especially in the infield.”
The AppleSox granted Helton and his sleep-deprived teammates no quarter; every inning seemed like the one when the defending WCL champs would explode and break the game open.
“It felt like, at any moment, they were one big hit away,” Biagi said.
But Helton’s simple mantra of “live low” — meaning the bottom of the strike zone — led to rally-dousing strikeouts or ground balls that third baseman John Skrbec, newly-arrived shortstop Nick Vilter and second baseman Scott Silva inhaled.
“I know with runners in scoring position, (batters) are looking for a ball up,” said Helton, who has 17 at-bats this summer as an infielder. “That’s what I do.”
Against Helton, Wenatchee was 0-for-8 with three strikeouts when batting with runners in scoring position. Against reliever Connor Dillman, who pitched the final 2 2/3 to preserve the shutout, earn the save and give WCL saves leader Sean-Luke Brija a deserved night off, it was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
“Bret Helton has a little hitter in him, so he was a great guy to throw tonight,” Miroglio, the Oakland A’s 40th-round selection in the recent MLB draft, said. “He doesn’t need a lot of mental time. He just goes out, picks up the rock and chucks it.
“Sometimes, he overthinks things. But when it comes time to settle down, he clutches up and gets the job done. He’s the definition of a gamer.”
“I wouldn’t say he had great command, but he had good stuff,” added Biagi. “He shut down their opportunities. He stayed down in the zone.”
Wenatchee starter Trevor Lubking matched Helton 0-for-0 for a stretch and had a no-hitter going through three innings.
But the Sweets broke the early-inning detente with a two-run fourth, Miroglio getting things started with a sharp single up the middle and scoring on Vilter’s bloop hit over shortstop.
Matt Mendenhall, who followed Miroglio’s hit with one of his own, scored later in the inning on an error.
That was the all the offense Helton, Dillman and the Sweets would need. Along the way, there were nifty defensive contributions by Silva (shovelling the ball to Vilter with his glove to start a 4-6-3 double play in the first), Vilter (ranging deep into the 6-hole to backhand a grounder and make a strong, accurate throw to rob Wenatchee of a single in the second) and left fielder Mike Paulson (he threw a runner out at the plate after Miroglio sailed a throw over third base on a bunt).
Silva also chased down a would-be bloop single and turned it into a demoralizing out in the top of the sixth, sprinting into no-man’s land behind second base to make an over-the-shoulder catch.
At 6-4, the Sweets have a two-game cushion on fourth-place Wenatchee and are within whispering distance of North co-leaders Bellingham and Victoria (both 7-3).
And they have five consecutive home games — starting tonight with Game 2 of the three-game set against Wenatchee — at Borleske, where they’re 3-1 in league, 5-1 overall.
“Walla Walla seems like home now,” said Miroglio. “It’s nice having something to come back to. You take it for granted, but then you go on the road, and you realize how fun it is to be home.”
Sweets 2, Wenatchee 0
Wenatchee 000 000 000 — 0 7 1
Walla Walla 000 200 00x — 2 6 0
Lubking, Burdick (6) and Hutting; Helton, Dillman (7) and Miroglio.
Hits: Wen: Real 2, Stephens, Spencer 2, Barr, Taylor. WW: Paulson, Miroglio 2, Mendenhall, Vilter, Gonzales.