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DIRTBAGS: I-5 Toyota Hammers the Ball with 17-2, 22-0 Victories Over Rural Baseball on Saturday

Saturday morning was the first time Rural Baseball Inc. had hit baseballs in three months. Saturday afternoon they played their first game in over a year.

Wearing camo and rust-colored jerseys, the Dirtbags’ rust showed, dropping a pair of games, 17-2, 22-0, in an opening-season doubleheader against Lewis County powerhouse I-5 Toyota at Wheeler Field.

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It was the Dirtbags’ first time together as an entire team this season as they were forced to practice with only five players at a time to adhere to the state’s phase two guidelines. Meanwhile, I-5 Toyota was playing its fourth and fifth games this season and has had access to batting cages. It showed.

“I told the kids afterwards, ‘This is the one time in your entire existence that you get to just be happy to be there,’” Rural Baseball coach Jordan Nailon said. “For us, it was just a great opportunity to get out there, get together, learn a little bit and just remember exactly what we’ve been missing.”

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The Dirtbags were no match for I-5’s hitting prowess and power pitching. I-5 started off the bottom of the first in game one by blasting eight runs. It tacked on two more in the second before the Dirtbags finally got on the scoreboard with a pair of runs in the third. But I-5 exploded for six more runs in the bottom of the third to put the game out of reach with a 16-2 lead.

I-5 pitcher Jeter Larson was effective on the mound, striking out seven batters in four innings. The battery combo of Larson and catcher Kyle Casperson showed why they were Lower Columbia College signees, a team that is the crown jewel of junior college baseball in the state.

I-5 has been practicing for about three weeks, with five players at a time, in preparation for the season, coach Tom Grunenfelder said.

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“We’ve been doing what we can to get ready,” Grunenfelder said. “A few guys at a time in the cages and stuff. But, yeah, it’s nice to get out and play.”

Game two was even more lopsided with I-5 powering to a 20-0 victory. I-5 smashed 16 hits, and committed zero errors, while Evan Bates threw a no-hitter. I-5 scored 13 runs in the second inning alone.

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Bates was equally impressive at the plate, going 2-for-4 with three RBIs and a double. Casperson had 2 hits with a double, while Luke Bennett, Brit Lusk and Carter Olson each had two hits, as well. W.F. West’s Cade Haller also smacked a couple hits in game two.

“We play solid defense, we’ve got nine good arms, some power in the middle of the lineup and a lot of speed at the top and bottom,” Grunenfelder said. “It’s a good, all-around club.”

I-5 has three players who were supposed to play for the Cowlitz Black Bears, a West Coast League summer collegiate team based out of Longview. Meanwhile, Rural Baseball featured an entirely Central 2B League infield.

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“Their coaches did a really good job of recruiting this year,” Nailon said.

For Rural, Chase Staup smashed a couple hits on the day to lead the Dirtbags offensively and was the only Dirtbag to collect hits in both games. Mckhi Morlin also had a base hit, while J.C. Workman had a base hit in the first game and pitched 1 ⅓ innings to finish out the second game for the Dirtbags.

“He threw really well, pounded the zone and was exactly what we needed to let our defense get some looks at ground balls, fly balls and real baseball stuff,” Nailon said. “He had probably the best outing on the day for us.”

Even though game two was even more lopsided than the first, Nailon felt his team improved and learned more the second time around.

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“The good thing about the second game was we didn’t give them a ton of free passes,” Nailon said. “The legitimately just hit the sh-t out of the ball. You kind of just got to tip your cap to them. Sometimes it just goes like that and you’ve got to hope it doesn’t go like that frequently… I told them, ‘At the end of the year we’re going to send I-5 a thank you card and thank them for helping us to get better.’ And they all started laughing. So I was like, ‘Yeah. It’s only funny if you actually get better.’”

Scheduling games has been difficult for summer league teams with all that’s going on. School facilities are still shut down, leaving only non-school fields available, which are in much fewer numbers than high school baseball fields. That leaves just Stan Hedwall Park and Wheeler Field as current playable sites for summer league high schoolers in Lewis County. The Dirtbags already had to cancel their summer tournament.

“We’re completely aware that this summer is just going to be full of craziness,” Nailon said. “Everybody I’ve talked to, all the coaches, everybody is just willing to figure out a way to make it work. Whatever that’s going to look like, whether we’ve got to wear masks, we just want to get it as close to normal as possible.”

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