TOUTLE — All it took was eight pitches.
Adna’s Levi Gates had cruised through four innings, struck out Jacob Nicholson to start the bottom of the fifth and had gotten two strikes on Dylan Fraidenburg at the bottom of the Toutle Lake order.
That’s when the game flipped completely.
Gates tried to jam a fastball into the zone and the Ducks’ freshman turned on it, launching a laser that didn’t stop traveling until it smacked into the bricks on the school past the tall wall in left-center.
“I knew right when he hit it it was gone,” senior first baseman Fisher Wassell said. “He’s come in clutch for us so many times.”
Fraidenburg’s first home run in a Toutle Lake uniform tied the game up at 1-1 and turned the lineup card over. Leadoff man Zach Swanson laced the first pitch he saw through the Adna third baseman, and ended up on second base on two errors. Connor Cox took two pitches, then lofted a ball to right on the third offering that dropped in front of the right fielder to put runners on the corners.
Adna elected to walk Jackson Cox intentionally, loading the bases without another pitch being thrown. Ryder Moss swung at the first pitch he faced, rolling a weak grounder that rolled slow enough for Swanson to get home ahead of the throw to put the Ducks up 2-1. The first pitch to Fisher Wassell was wild, and Kyler Shellenbarger — running for Connor Cox — came home to make it 3-1, before Wassell turned on the second, lining a two-RBI single up the middle.
That turn of events was more than enough to spin a nerve rattling start into a 7-2 win, punching the Ducks’ ticket to the District 4 2B finals Saturday against Forks.
“I didn’t even second-guess,” Connor Cox said. “I knew our team was good enough, and I’ve got the confidence in us that I knew we were going to at least go score what we needed to and come out with a win.”
Cox’s confidence wasn’t the unanimous sentiment in the Toutle Lake dugout in the early innings. Wassell was eight outs away from an abrupt end to his high school career, with Gates shutting the Ducks out over the first four innings.
“He was shutting us down, I’ll admit it,” Wassell said. “He was throwing strikes, and we weren’t swinging. It finally seemed like we started swinging after that homer from Dylan.”
Now, Wassell has a chance to do what his father, Casey, did for Toutle Lake back in the 1990s: go undefeated in his senior season.
Those eight pitches were the last eight pitches Gates would throw before getting pulled off the mound. He finished his outing with seven strikeouts.
“If we could take those 10 or so pitches back, it would be a different ball game,” Adna coach Jon Rooklidge said. “They’re 15-0 for a reason. Give credit to our kids. They were facing a kid throwing 85-87 MPH. We had really good discipline at the plate but we stranded runners.”
His replacement, senior Tyler Minkoff, got out of the fifth without any more damage done, but the Ducks would get to him in the sixth.
Fraidenburg’s shot was a bolt, out of the park in a flash. It left the Pirates wondering what just happened as the Ducks realized they suddenly had the momentum. On the contrary, Jackson Cox’s two-run bomb to make it 7-1 was a moonshot that just kept rising and rising, giving the Toutle Lake bench time to get up and out of the dugout as it finally crested. They were nearly to home plate before it fell in the playground behind the left field wall.
“Everything just clicked and we started to go,” Connor Cox said. “Jackson hit the other home run, and we just kept on going and kept on going.”
For four innings, it was the Adna bench that had it going. Swanson came out wild in his first career postseason start, and while the Pirates couldn’t catch up to his fastball, they didn’t need to.
The good parts of the freshman’s outing were the eight strikeouts. The bad parts were the nine walks and the hit batter, and bevy of three-ball counts that pushed his pitch count up into the 80s in four official innings.
Adna batters only put three balls in play against Swanson during that time. Their lone hit came on a sacrifice bunt attempt that just happened to roll perfectly into no-mans’ land. But every single Pirate starter reached base, and for more than half of the game, the one run they pushed across — on a bases-loaded walk in the second — had them creeping closer and closer to the upset.
“He is such a competitor, I know that’s definitely not the way he wanted to have a one-hitter,” coach Jerry Johnson said of Swanson.
Two walks to start the top of the fifth inning ended Swanson’s outing on the hill, and Johnson had Connor Cox shed the tools of ignorance and take his place. That move set off a chain-reaction five position changes and put his freshman reliever in a no-out jam.
Cox got the first batter to fly out to deep right, trading an out for 90 feet and moving a Pirate to third base. Then he struck out the next hitter and sniffed out a two-out safety squeeze with a quick throw to first to end the threat.
Still, Adna had the momentum. But then those eight pitches happened, and suddenly Cox was pitching with a lead.
The freshman worked around a single in the sixth, then gave up one run in the seventh on an RBI double that scored Gates under a swipe tag.
Cox struck out the next batter, then got out in front 0-2 on Gabe Slape. That's when Eddie Gould, who had come in to catch in the fifth, thought he saw Gates picking signs from his leadoff at second base. Cox tried to wave his catcher back to the plate, but Gould eventually came out, set the signs, and calmed his pitcher down.
“Definitely what I needed,” Cox said. “It helped me, and it worked.”
Gould jogged back behind the dish, got into his crouch and Cox unleashed one more fastball high at the hands that Slape couldn’t lay off before emphatically bidding adieu to the Pirates.
“He’s running all the time,” Johnson said of Cox. “That kid has got energy galore.”
Adna finishes the season with a 10-4 record. Three seniors played their final game for the Pirates: Tyler Minkoff, Joe Bennight and Levi Gates.
“They’re unbelievable leaders and they’re going to be successful men in life,” Rooklidge said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our kids. They went to war.”
Toutle Lake (15-0) will face Forks in the district championship at 1 p.m. on Saturday at W.F. West High School.