The 2021 baseball season has been monumentally different. A compressed season with shortened playoffs. New rules surrounding the baseballs. Masks. And the masks.
But one thing was the same. The W.F. Bearcats were on top. After rising from the dead to walk-off the Columbia River Rapids of the Greater Saint Helens League, 5-4, in eight innings, WFW held off a late Tumwater charge to take the 2A District 4 crown with a 6-5 win, getting the game-winning hit from Kolby Hansen to score Andrew Stafford from second base in the top of the seventh inning, the final frame of the strange season.
“(It feels) better than amazing,” Hansen said of the tournament-winning RBI. “It’s a little nerve-wracking when you’re up there, but after it’s done — yeah.”
So often people talk about baseball as an individual sport masquerading as a team one. And that description does, indeed, have merit. But WFW Friday showed why it is, and will remain, a team game, one won and lost by a collection of disparate individuals that come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And both games Friday demonstrated, in different ways, the nature of that fact.
Let’s start with the first game of the day: the semifinal against the deep and talented Rapids of Columbia River High School in Vancouver.
River started Sawyer Parkin, a slimly-built 6-footer committed to Tacoma CC who throws gas — he can touch at least 93 mph with a fastball — and a nasty wipeout slider.
W.F. West managed to scrape across a couple runs early, the best time to get to a starter, but he settled in like starters do and started carving up the Bearcat order. He wasn’t getting strikeouts, he had just two in his 6.1 innings, but he found a way to wriggle out of jams, limiting his stress pitches while frustrating the powerful Bearcats.
For instance, in the bottom of the third inning, trailing 4-2 after River plated two runs and chased starter Brit Lusk (we’ll get to him later), W.F. West loaded the bases with one out and appeared poised to do the same to Parkin.
But the River senior got Gavin Fugate to pop up in the infield, then induced soft contact back to him off Tanner Vaughn’s bat that resulted in an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play. Parkin did stuff like that his entire outing, and it would’ve been easy for WFW to just collectively shrug its shoulders.
But that didn’t happen. Because the other side of the ball picked up the offense.
That brings us to Lusk. And Gabe Smitherman. And Stafford. In that order.
Lusk wasn’t his normal sharp self. He hit three batters in the first inning, yet somehow only allowed a single run. He walked the leadoff hitter in the top of the second, gave up a double, and still only gave up a single run.
Through those two innings, he found a way to give up just the pair, despite a parade of Rapids threatening on the bases. He walked the first batter of the top of the third, then beaned his third Rapid of the night. It was his last batter.
“I didn’t think he pitched too bad,” junior Brock Bunker said of Lusk. “The first inning, it was rough, but he got out of there. I think we needed that, to get out of there. It wasn’t the best, but he kept his positive attitude the whole time and he was hyping up the dugout the whole time. It was great.”
Bearcats manager went to Smitherton, who yielded a pair of runs (both of which were charged to Lusk), but no more. Columbia River led 4-2, with Parkin shoving and all the momentum in his dugout.
He danced out of the bottom of the third, then cruised all the way to the seventh, retiring nine of the next 10 batters he faced.
Until Bunker stepped in with one out in the seventh.
The Bearcats shortstop fell quickly behind 0-2, then fouled off pitch after pitch while spitting on some borderline offerings, before finally being allowed to drop his bat and take up position at first base. It was an eight-pitch battle that ran Parkin’s pitch count over his limit, and CR had to go to its bullpen.
That’s when WFW smelled blood in the water.
Max Taylor, a thorn in everyone’s side all day, walked, then Texas Tech-bound Drew Reynolds watched ball four fly past, loading the bases for Lusk, who stayed in the game mentally despite a less-than-ideal start on the mound with a chance to tie, or win, the game in the bottom of the seventh.
“It’s gonna be in the back of your mind the rest of the night,” Lusk said, “and I’ll probably be thinking about it next week and forever. But you just gotta understand you’re not the only one on the team, and you got guys behind you who are solid too and they’ll get the job done. And we got the job done.”
Lusk came through. He made up for his unlikely frustrating outing. He hammered one through the six hole, and Bunker and the fleet-footed Taylor both stormed home.
The team had come through. The team had coalesced around each other, instead of splintering apart.
In the eighth, Vaughn led off by getting hit with a pitch and Evan Stajduhar took his place at first. Stafford blooped in a single. Then Logan Moore followed. It was up to Bunker now, with no outs and the winning run at third, with a spot in the district title game on the line in a 4-4 contest.
His thinking was simple.
“‘I gotta get a hit,’” the junior said. “No matter what. Put it in play. Not straight to the pitcher. That’s my main goal there.”
And, wouldn’t you know, he did.
He lined a soft one into left field, it fell just in front of Walker Atkins, and Stajduhar scurried across the plate and joined his teammates in mobbing Bunker beyond first base.
“Everybody contributed, even the guys in the dugout who didn’t see the field today,” W.F. West coach Bryan Bullock said. “It was a complete team effort today. Somebody asked earlier, ‘Who stood out?’ I can’t pick out one guy. Everyone did something tonight. It was so fun. To see the competitiveness come out and guys step up and do things, it was great.
“It was a day of overcoming adversity. You mention all those guys. Brit doesn’t pitch well but gets the game-winning hit with two strikes. Kolby has been struggling at the plate throughout the game but gets the game-winning hit. Those are things that we had been working on throughout the season, is trying to get us competitive and not back down. Because there’d be times where we’d get a lead and we’d just kind of roll over a little bit. So it was really nice to see that competitiveness for all 15 innings that we played today.”
But the contribution that’s missing in this remembrance is Stafford’s. And it was arguably the most crucial.
Stafford moved from second base to the center of the infield after Smitherton, his job to allow no more runs. The task of coming back against Parkin and the Rapids was already tough enough. Any steeper the climb and it might’ve been impossible. It was already improbable enough.
Stafford rose to the occasion.
From the fourth inning on, Stafford allowed just three baserunners in total — one on an error and two on a pair of sixth-inning singles. He stranded a runner at third in that frame, but went clean in the fifth, seventh, and all-important eighth inning.
And he was as calm as can be about it.
“Honestly, I had no nerves because I got used to the situation closing,” Stafford said. “There’s no nerves. I knew my team would help me out.”
But the day wasn’t done.
W.F. West still had to play their biggest rival this season, the team that was on their minds, the team that snapped their historic 49-game 2A EvCo winning streak, which just so happened to start after losing to...Tumwater.
“We love to beat Tumwater,” Bunker said. “Nobody likes Tumwater.”
Funnily enough, it wouldn’t have been Friday’s Bearcats if everything went according to plan.
Tumwater got four runs in the bottom of the second, taking a 4-1 lead.
But, again, the gravitational nature of the Bearcats dugout brought them closer, and someone provided a spark.
With Tumwater starter Blake Smith keeping the Bearcats at bay, it would’ve taken just a spark, just a modicum of energy to flip the game on its head.
And that’s just what WFW got.
With Reynolds at first after a single and one out, Fugate lofted one into the out-blowing wind toward right, and it carried, and carried, and carried, until it drifted over the Bearcats’ bullpen and the outstretched arms of whoever was out there throwing for a two-run homer, cutting the Tumwater lead to 4-3.
It was a massive swing in momentum. It lifted the pressure from Logan Moore’s back, who had yielded the earlier four runs.
“We come out, score first, then they get ahead of us and we’re kind of a little bit lethargic, and that home run just jumped started us,” Bullock said. “Getting two runs on the board with one swing in a game against the Smith kid who was pitching real well, that really helped us.”
From there, it was a matter of putting together good at-bats and chipping away. The bulk of the work had been done. Now wasn’t the time to try to hit balls into the parking lot. Now was the time to work counts, find a good pitch to hit, and get a barrel to it.
And, again, that’s just what the Bearcats did.
In the fifth, Reynolds and Lusk both walked, ending Smith’s day. Tumwater went to Austin Sheldon, but WFW didn’t care at that point. A wild pitch moved the runners up, then Fugate chopped a single that stayed in the infield but gave Reynolds time to scamper across and tie proceedings at four runs apiece.
A batter later, Stafford grounded into a potential double play ball, but he beat out the relay, giving time for Lusk to cross with the go-ahead run. Moore singled, Hansen watched strike three go by, then Bunker shot one up the middle that Brayden Oram got to with a backhand, but it hit off the heel of his glove and caromed away.
Stafford scored easily, but the unknown W.F. West courtesy runner got caught between home and third, and, despite a frenzied retreat and dive to the penultimate pillow, got picked off, ending the inning with W.F. West up just 6-4. It could’ve been more.
The Bearcats needed all of those and would’ve liked to have maybe one or two more. Because Tumwater did not go quietly into the good night, which was getting quite nippy, indeed.
In the home fifth, Grady Finney sent an 0-2 curveball the other way for a single, stole second, and then third. But Reynolds’ throw took Lusk into the runner, and he couldn’t quite glove the wide-ish throw. It leaked into the left and Finney scored easily. 6-5 Bearcats.
Then, in the sixth, Tumwater struck again.
Moore walked the leadoff batter, threw out the sacrifice bunter at first, plunked the third batter of the inning then allowed a single to Nate Kassler singled. WFW right fielder Cade Haller got to it quickly and got it in quicker, holding Austin Duncan at third.
Bullock went to the bullpen and got Smitherman, who walked the first batter he faced, which tied the game. The Bearcat dugout was not happy with the strike zone, and had been so the whole game. Emotions boiled over, but Smitherman kept his composure.
He got a fly out to Drayson Hilkemeier in left, who, again, quickly got it back into the infield to hold the runner at third, then Connor Bourbon scorched one into center, but Taylor was there and, with a little hop, squeezed it to keep things even at 6-6, setting up the decisive seventh inning.
Stafford singled with one out, then moved to second on a wild pitch with Moore at the plate. He eventually struck out, which brought up Kolby Hansen, who occupied the eight hole.
On a 3-1 pitch, Hansen flicked a fastball through the four hole on the ground, and Stafford charged around third, getting waved home as soon as Hansen made contact.
The throw home was wide, up the first base line, and Kassler made an athletic play to catch and stretch back to try to tag the sliding Stafford. But he was just late, just ever so late, and Stafford scored the go-ahead run.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about that play was Hansen had been working on going the other way all year. In the biggest spot, with the stakes at their most crushing, he stayed closed, just like he practiced so many times.
“Coach Kelly, we’ve been working on my approach to drive it right-center gap the whole,” Hansen said. “So I give that one to him.”
Smitherton made the bottom of the seventh inning anticlimactic, and the Bearcats hoisted the hardware as best in the district.
Can you put a day of baseball like Friday into words?
“You really don’t,” Hansen said. “You just remember it. This was our seniors’ last ride. One way to go out, I guess.”