The key to the Tigers’ playoff run has been simple: Just enjoy it.
It’s how they turned the season around, from a slow start back in March to three straight upset wins in the 2B District IV baseball tournament.
It’s how they wound up in a tight game against Toutle Lake in Chehalis, the Central 2B League champion and favorite for the state title, in Friday’s district title game. It’s how they put the ball in play against Duck ace Jackson Cox, an Oregon commit with a 96-mph fastball.
And it’s how Napavine senior Gavin Parker handled the situation he found himself in midway through the fifth inning. With a 4-1 lead, one out and the bases loaded, Parker was called out from behind the plate to swap spots with pitcher Ashton Demarest.
“I really, honestly, thought, in my head — just go have fun,” he said. “That’s what all of my teammates were telling me, too, was to just go have fun.”
The scene may have left the dugout sweating bullets, but the stress was temporary. Parker escaped the inning with the lead intact at 4-3 and blanked the Ducks in the final two innings as Napavine knocked off Toutle Lake — the No. 2 team on the WIAA’s RPI board — for the district championship.
It was an impressive turn of events for a team that had to win a 14-11 slugfest with Pe Ell-Willapa Valley last Saturday just to qualify for the double-elimination portion of the tournament. The Tigers now head to the regional round of the state playoffs on an eight-game winning streak.
“I don’t know that we could have played much better,” Napavine coach Brian Demarest said. “We’ve kind of picked a good time to start playing some good baseball.”
That started at the plate, against the best pitcher in the 2B ranks. Cox, a 6-foot-1 righthander, is a projected early-round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft. He struck out 11 on Friday, but gave up six hits.
“Our goal this week was to just put the ball on the ground and make them beat us — not Cox,” Parker said, as to their approach at the plate. “I was all choked up, and a two-strike approach — I wasn’t trying to hit a bomb or whatever.”
The hits, while not thunderous, were effective. Ashton Demarest dribbled a single to the left side of the infield in the second inning, advanced on a bunt single from Conner Holmes, moved to third on a bunt from Cal Bullock and scored on a wild pitch.
It was one of the few times Napavine’s taken the small-ball route, Brian Demarest said.
“We had to try something, right?” he joked. “The kid’s (Cox) going to be drafted. Next year he’s going to get paid to throw. Our kids, they don’t even get paid to work.”
The lead stood until the fourth inning. Demarest reached on an error and Cox walked one and hit another to load the bases with no outs. With one out he walked in a run, and then Parker and Ashtin Landry hit back-to-back RBI singles.
“Anything we saw with a spin we were laying off it, and if it wasn’t spinning, we were hacking and just hoping to get something,” the Tiger coach said. “We just did an absolutely phenomenal job of hitting tonight, I thought.”
Meanwhile, Ashton Demarest quietly kept Toutle Lake off-balance from the mound. The sophomore didn’t strike a batter out or allow a hit through the first four innings, instead coaxing the Ducks into fly balls and letting his outfield handle the work. Left fielder Lane Mitchell was a standout, catching a runner off base for a double play in the second inning and snagging a deep fly ball at the warning track for the penultimate out.
“Fortunately, they both threw great,” Brian Demarest said of his two pitchers. “They got themselves in a little trouble, but they were able to work out of it.”
Parker finished 2 for 4 to pace Napavine at the plate, while Kyler Shellenbarger and Dylan Fraidenburg had the Ducks’ only hits.
Now Napavine (14-5) heads to regionals for the first time since 2017, with a loose attitude and plenty of belief in themselves.
“It’s one of those deals, we’re on house money right now,” Demarest said. “They’re not scared to play anybody, and I think as long as we keep playing good baseball, and keep throwing strikes, our confidence stays like it is, we might be able to play for a little bit.”
Note: The WIAA’s baseball seeding committees are scheduled to meet Saturday to determine seeding into the 2B regional baseball playoffs. Brackets will be released Saturday afternoon or Sunday.