Double headers are always long days, even with the backend shortened to seven innings in the NWAC. It was an even longer day for the Centralia Blazers on Saturday.
A dousing of rain Friday night left Wheeler Field desperately in need of work, and the Blazers arrived early to rid the playing surface of any moisture with the deep and talented Lower Columbia Red Devils making a house call.
With some program turbulence behind it and a brief sprinkling of hail early on, Centralia just never got the hit it needed in the opener, falling 5-4. LCC then shut out Centralia 3-0 in the nightcap.
“I think the takeaway is that we battled all nine innings,” manager Ben Harley said. “We really kept going as a team and bought in as a team and tried to reach our goal of winning. Regardless of what the score was, we played well.”
Centralia certainly did battle. From the outset.
Battling the ever-growing hailstones and a bout of nervousness in his first collegiate home start on his former high school mound, freshman Derek Beairsto allowed three early runs, but settled in to give the Blazers five strong innings, giving his dugout a chance to win.
“Even in the first inning when he was giving up runs, it was little dinky hits here and there,” Grant Roosma said. “He was having guys miss barrels, it was just they were getting lucky with where they were putting baseballs.”
They battled in the first inning, when elder statesman and Centralia Nolan Wasson smacked a rocket over the left-center field fence, wresting back at least a sliver of momentum.
Wasson has battled injuries and academic struggles since graduating from Centralia, going off to Spokane and returning to hit third and play third for the Blazers. He finished with two hits and as many RBIs.
“Wass is our fire-starter,” Roosma said. “When he gets hot, everyone gets hot around him.”
“Wasson’s one of our leaders, and that was a nice answer,” Harley added. “It was nice answer to their three runs. He sets the pace and the tone for the team.”
Roosma was the other offensive stalwart for Centralia. He looped in a two-strike double in the bottom of the second with LCC’s outfield shifted off the left field line. Eric Louchies almost got there with a dive, but it landed just fair. Roosma got to third, but no further.
Centralia cut the lead to one in the fourth when Roosma crushed a backspin liner to center that fooled Kyle Fitzgerald in center. It got over his head, giving the Blazer catcher time enough to reach second. That was followed by a two-out, two-strike double from Trey Hunt, one that banged off the left field fence, allowing him to trade places with his catcher.
The count stayed at 3-2 until the seventh, when LCC appeared to put it out of reach.
Facing reliever Colby Knutzen, Matt Schwartz singled with one out, then Knutzen got ahead of Drew Steelhammer, and needed just one pitch to put the long and powerful right fielder away.
But he made a mistake, and Steelhammer punished it, scraping the heavens for a two-run homer that gave LCC a 5-2 lead and all the energy.
But, again, Centralia wouldn’t go away, like the ospreys that reside beyond centerfield.
Matt Obst started the home seventh with a single, then pinch-hitter Conor Bardue followed with his own single. Andrew Dalton loaded the bases with a walk.
After a strikeout, Wasson provided his other RBI, punching a single through the wide open four hole. Bardue held at third, keeping the bases loaded for Trent Jackson, the Blazer clean-up hitter. Dalton was at second and represented the tying run. Remember that.
LCC manager went and got flame-throwing reliever Ryan Pitts after that, and the radar guns came with him.
Jackson singled and Bardue scored easily. Dalton came flying around third, but a late stop sign and a wide angle took him into the Centralia third base coach, and the relay throw beat him to the plate. A brief rundown ensued and LCC held onto a slim 5-4 lead.
“If we’re in those situations, we can live with that every time, regardless of what the outcome is,” Harley said. “It gives us a chance to compete with a high-level ballclub.”
Dalton stayed in the game mentally, and he made a crucial play in the top of the eighth.
With two outs, Schwartz lined one up the middle that Dalton needed a dive to glove. He didn’t come up cleanly, though, but didn’t panic, flipped and fired home as Louchies, who was at second, never stopped rounding third as Lane aggressively tried to play add-on. He was out easily, and Centralia took some momentum into the dugout with a chance to tie or take the lead.
“That was a huge momentum shift and brought a ton of energy to our dugout,” Roosma said. “It fired us up.”
But Pitts wasn’t going to give it up. He struck out the side in the bottom of the eighth, then induced three weak contacts in the ninth to slam the door.
Still, Centralia had reasons to be optimistic in the face of some tumult and rust.
“They’ve really gone about their business,” Harley said. “Guys like Wasson and Trey Hunt and Andrew Dalton, they really set the tone. Regardless of what’s going on with the program, they come everyday to work and they’ve really bought in as a group. And we have a bunch of guys who really get along and they like each other, which makes being out here an enjoyable experience. And they all have the same common goal of coming out here and winning baseball games and getting an education.”
Centralia (1-3) visits Green River on Sunday at noon.