Wait. Did you say bottom of the ninth? I thought ordinarily Mustang Division Playoff games in Lakewood’s PONY (Protect Our Nation’s Youth) league only went six innings.
But this playoff game was anything but ordinary.
With every out, every hit, every pitch, this game was a playoff game for the ages. And the ages of these kids – almost all from the fourth grade at Tillicum Elementary – are all of only nine-and-ten years old. In their young baseball career, they’ve already played THE GAME. Given all the drama, the nail-biting, the cheers of parents and fans on their feet, you’d have thought this game was being played out on the big stage in the big leagues.
For these kids it was.
This June 13 evening contest between the Crushers and the Mariners was all of that.
My oh my what a game.
With two outs in the top of the first the Crusher’s DeVaughn Norman took a first called strike. Swung at the second and missed.
But he didn’t miss the third. Norman crushed a line drive to right field, rounded the bases and slid in safely under the tag at home.
Crushers up 1 nothing.
Mariner’s bottom of the first. A double into left. A single to short moving the runner to third. A single into right scores a run.
And then this.
The Crusher’s Derek Doss charged the grounder coming his way from his position as pitcher on the mound, scooped it up and fired to Erick Corono-Illan at home who tagged out the sliding runner.
Hits and runs would follow however and the Crushers were down 4 to 1 after one inning.
Malachi Parks worked a six-pitch at bat and earned a walk to start the second.
Ethan Lech’s fly to third was dropped and Parks moved up a base.
Gabriel Heslop walked. Bases loaded.
Derek singled through short and both Parks and Lech scored. Gabriel tried to score on the play but was tagged out at home.
Two outs. Erick’s grounder to third was bobbled leaving Corona-Illan standing at first.
Gauge Simon drilled one into left and Doss scored.
Score is tied at 4-4.
Doss struck out the first batter to face him in the bottom of the second.
The next batter grounded to Malcolm Frank at second. Frank bobbled the ball. Then bobbled it again. But the third time, with no time left to create any more drama, he snatched the thing and threw hard to Gauge at first for a bang-bang out.
It’s much easier on the fans to just strike out batters which is how Doss did in four pitches to end the second inning.
The Crushers went quietly in their half of the third but not so the Mariners.
With Simon now having taken over for Doss, the first batter doubled into center field. A second shot to center scored a run. Yet another double and another run and the Mariners were up 6-4.
Then this. With no outs and a runner at second, the batter hit a high fly ball that would have landed exactly on second base – where the runner was – except that Norman tracked it and tracked it and nearly colliding with the Mariner standing on second, snatched the ball right behind the runner who had retreated to the bag.
Simon struck out the next two batters.
Top of the fourth, down 6-4, the Crushers come to the plate.
Lech hit a slow roller down the first baseline fair. It was a race to the bag. The first baseman had to come in, glove the ball, turn and attempt to chase down Lech. Lech won.
Heslop worked the count full and his patience paid off with a walk.
Runners at first and second.
Doss hit a slow roller down the third base line. By the time the third baseman got there to retrieve the ball there was no play.
Corona-Illan sliced a double – a double! – into center field scoring two.
The score is tied once again. At six.
Gauge followed with another double, also scoring two and the Crushers are up 8-6.
Parks would hit a double – a double! – into center and another run would score.
The Mariners came to the plate the bottom of the fourth down by three.
The first batter hit the second pitch high, high into the air to second base. At the last second Norman snatched it out of the waiting glove of his cousin, Malcom Frank.
That’s the passion with which these kids played tonight. Everybody wanted it. Everybody wanted to make the play. Everybody wanted to make it happen.
Ditto the next batter. Change the players, same result. A high, high fly ball came down to where Jacob Barr was waiting at first but Simon was there to snatch it away.
Simon walked the next batter but then struck out the last.
Top of the fifth.
The Mariner’s high-heat, side-arm closer comes to the mound and strikes out the first two Crushers, Norman among them who had hit a home run way back in the first inning. Parks connected for a dribbler down the third base line and not only beat out the throw to first but was moved along to second when the ball – missed by the first baseman – went under the fence.
No more drama that inning though as Parks would be stranded.
Bottom of the fifth.
The Mariners are down 9 to 6.
The first Mariner would reach base on a bobbled grounder. He would then steal second and third. A walk would put Mariners at first and third and then second and third on a steal.
Up to the plate strides the Mariner’s closer, ordinarily a long-ball hitter.
But, like I said, this was no ordinary game.
It’s payback time.
For striking out the Crusher (literally) long-ball home run hitter Norman in the previous inning on three straight pitches, Simon strikes out the Mariner’s version in three straight.
A grounder through third was returned quickly to the infield but a throwing error would then score a run. Nine to seven. A missed grounder scored yet another. Nine to eight. Norman would catch two line drives at short stop to end the inning but not before the score would be tied at nine.
Top of the sixth. The Crushers go down 1-2-3.
Bottom of the sixth. The Mariners need to push across a single run to win it.
Speedy Simon and Barr both have a bead on a foul fly ball with Simon making the catch. The next batter hit a one-bouncer back to the mound that should have bounded high over Simon. Should have. It certainly bounded high but Simon is not only fast he can leap too, snagging the ball and firing to first to the waiting Barr.
Bottom of the sixth.
No Mariners on the base paths.
One to win it.
Simon strikes out the batter.
Top of the seventh.
Only Barr would connect in the Crusher half but the high fly ball was caught by the second baseman.
Bottom of the seventh.
The first Mariner batter flew out to Norman at short.
Barr replaces Simon on the mound.
The next Mariner batter works Barr to a full count on five pitches and then Barr strikes him out.
A grounder caromed off Barr’s mitt where Norman awaited but the throw to first was a bit late. The runner would steal second.
A run wins it.
After a first pitch ball, Coach Kevin Klas calls time and has a visit to the mound with Barr who responded by striking out the batter leaving the winning run at third.
Top of the eighth.
Score tied at nine.
A half-dozen league officials are there to watch the incredible finish.
So is Lakewood City Councilmember Mike Brandstetter. And Cameron Wilkinson, PE teacher at Tillicum where all but one of the Crushers hail from. And lots and lots of parents and grandparents and friends.
And then, this.
The sprinklers in the outfield along the right baseline come on, sweeping round and round, spraying water everywhere. A puddle begins forming just outside third base on the infield. Officials huddle and several gather up garbage can lids and place them over the sprinkler heads. The water pressure blows them off. Officials stand on them. That seems to work.Photo of league officials doing their ‘rain-check’ of the sprinklers, by Tom Niebauer.
Back to baseball.
Home-run hitting Norman’s foul tip is caught by the catcher. He’s out. The next two Crushers struck out.
Bottom of the eighth.
We’re two hours and ten minutes into the game.
Counting ‘the rain delay.’
The Mariners need one run to win it.
A first-pitch fly ball is caught by Franks at second. Franks then, from one knee, fields a grounder and while on one knee, with no time to scramble to his feet, fires from his near sitting position to the stretching Simon now playing at first.
The winning run comes to the plate and beats out a throw for a single.
The next batter hits one foul down the third base line but it seems to hang there even as it drifts closer and closer to the dugout. Away from his stance with the crack of the bat, Doss from third gives chase and leans with outstretched mitt and snares the third out.
Top of the ninth.
First batter Tyler Gortariz draws a walk. Lech strokes one but right to second base for the force out. Heslop walked. Crushers on first and second with one out. A strike out and then yet another grounder right to second to end the Crusher half of the ninth.
Bottom of the ninth. Soon the lights will come on. Two-and-a-half hours. The sprinklers are still going. League officials are still standing on the lids from the garbage cans.
On three straight pitches, Barr strikes out the first batter.
Not so fortunate with the second who hit a high fly ball into right field where it dropped safely enabling the batter-turned-runner to end up on second.
A grounder to Simon at first and there are two outs.
There’s now a runner at third.
First pitch to the new batter is a called strike. Then a foul back behind the plate.
Two outs. Two strikes. Approaching three hours. Score knotted at nine like it’s been the last three innings.
Runner at third.
The very next pitch is dribbled between the mound and the third base line. Barr charges from the mound and decides that to turn and attempt the long throw to first was likely not an option as much as a play at the plate.
The throw is made.
The runner slides.
The tag is applied.
Blue looks down.
And then spreads his arms wide.
The tag is just a hair late.
The record books will record the score as 10 to 9, with the Crushers on the losing end.
In the bottom of the ninth.
Of a game that’s only supposed to go six.
With a play at the plate.
But to hear the fans – from both sides – with what little voices they had left; and to watch the players greeting one-another on the field; and to see coaches huddle with the opposing players to quietly say whatever it was they said, it was baseball at its best.
Except for the tears, you wouldn’t have known who won.
The winner goes on to the final game.
This wasn’t even the championship.
But you would have thought it was.