RIDGEFIELD — Friday night, the Toutle Lake baseball smashed Cinderella’s glass slipper. But Saturday afternoon, they couldn’t stave off the comeback kings.
From the first pitch thrown all the way back in March to the third out of the top of the sixth inning of the 2B state title game against Brewster in Ridgefield, with few exceptions, the Ducks dominated. Jackson Cox, the ace who went into the COVID-19 pause a 15-year-old and came out as the most dominant pitcher in the state, gave them shutdown outing after shutdown outing, ending with six innings of one-run ball against the Bears. As a misty day turned into a rainy one at the RORC, he struck out five of the final six batters he faced, ending his high school career on the mound with one last slider to get a Brewster batter to go fishing.
But sitting at 107 pitches after that, pitch count rules meant his outing had to end. So come the seventh inning, with Toutle Lake leading 6-1, the Ducks had to go to the bullpen against a Bears side that had already pulled off a comeback in the finals to make it to the championship game.
The inning followed can only be described as a nightmare of the wettest and most soul-crushing variety.
When it was all said and done, there was a celebration of white and red on the field instead of a wave of blue, with Brewster celebrating the most improbable 7-6 win.
“A long career, and I don’t remember a game like that,” TL skipper Jerry Johnson said. “That’s a pretty hard pill to swallow.”
With the postseason set up with ample breaks between rounds, the Ducks hadn’t needed to open their pitching staff up beyond Jackson Cox and Zach Swanson — two Division I commits — as starters and Connor Cox as the lone man in occasional relief. But with Swanson and the younger Cox having pitched Friday, Johnson turned to junior Cam Wheatley for his first appearance in over three weeks, for the biggest inning of his life.
And as the rain turned into a downpour, the free passes began. Soon the bases were loaded, the second hit batsman of the frame made it 6-2, and the Ducks converged on the hill to try to calm things down.
“He’s a gamer, he won a state title last year in Babe Ruth,” Johnson said. “Just the way the ball bounced today.”
Four straight balls later, it was 6-3, and they were meeting again, this time to bring in Dylan Fraidenburg — who hadn’t thrown in a game in five weeks — to end things before the tying run could come around from first.
But the rain increased, as did the Ducks’ troubles.
“The end of the game there, we were struggling to get dry balls,” Johnson said. “I don’t like it. But I’m not the powers that be.”
Fraidenburg found the zone, but only so much as to let Brewster knock an RBI single. Then he lost it, and back-to-back walks tied the game at 6-6.
Finally, facing the ninth batter of the inning, the sophomore got the first out of the inning, then the second. But with the faintest bit of hope that the nightmare could end before things went completely sideways, one last walk gave the Bears a 7-6 lead.
“Kind of like last night, momentum shifts and stuff happens when momentum starts going the other way. I can second-guess my decisions, but it is what it is,” Johnson said.
After 53 pitches and seven free passes, Toutle Lake finally escaped the top of the seventh. But what had been expected to be a coronation had completely flipped, and while both Cox brothers reached in the bottom of the frame, the Ducks left the tying run on second when the final out was made. As Brewster’s fans came out the field to take photos of their boys with the first-place trophy, the blue-clad half of the stand milled behind the dugout more shellshocked than sad as they tried to process what all had taken place, as Johnson and his coaching staff had to give the toughest sort of postgame talk to their team.
“Second place sucks, that’s all there is to it,” he said. “We all know that. With time, down the road, they’ll be able to remember it a little more fondly I guess, but second place sucks.”
Toutle Lake took advantage of a bit of wildness to take its big lead early. In the bottom of the second, Brewster starter Tyson Schertenleib walked the bases loaded against the bottom of the order, and the top made him pay. Swanson lined a single on a ball at his eyes to make it 1-0. Connor Cox tripled the lead with a 2-RBI single. Jackson Cox made it 4-0 on a sacrifice fly, and after Fisher Wassell singled and Fraidenburg walked, Kyler Shellenbarger knocked a fifth run home.
“That momentum, you always hope you can keep it and capitalize,” Johnson said. “For the most part we did, but we couldn’t finish it.”
Meanwhile, Cox was getting his job done on the hill, though in a bit more labored of a process than normal. The Oregon commit reached 96 miles per hour on the speed gun early, but the Bears came to the plate ready to battle long at-bats. And while they could only manage a run in the first, they tagged him for six hits — his most allowed this season — and more importantly in the grand scheme of things, drove his pitch count up. Cox needed 29 pitches to get out of the first inning and sat on 66 after three, making it obvious that unless things he started whizzing through batters or the Ducks hit the 10-run threshold, they’d need to replace him on the hill for the first time in the postseason.
Cox finished with 12 strikeouts in his final outing in the solid blue jerseys, with two walks to his name.
“Jackson, we’re going to miss Jackson,” Johnson said. “I look forward to watching him play down the road. Tremendous athlete, tremendous baseball player. I love that kid.”
Connor Cox and Kyler Shellenbarger both had two hits to lead the Ducks on offense. Wassell reached base three times on a single, a hit-by-pitch, and a walk.
Toutle Lake ends its season with a 24-3 record, but two of those three losses — in the District IV championship game to Napavine and Saturday — mean that their highest takeaway from the spring was the Central 2B League title. They’ll lose Jackson Cox, Wassell, and Eddie Gould to graduation, and but return seven starters next season, when the chip they got on their shoulders after not having a state tournament in 2021 will be all the larger.
“Love all the kids, everybody worked hard all season long,” Johnson said. “It’s disappointing to come away with the second-place trophy instead.”