WENATCHEE — With only nine position players active on Tuesday, the Wenatchee AppleSox put forth one of the team’s most complete performances of the summer.
It was only fitting that the ultimate gamer — Sox starter Beau Kerns — threw arguably his most masterful performance in the first game of the Divisional Playoffs against the Walla Walla Sweets, a team that had won eight straight going into the contest. Wenatchee scored seven runs over the first two innings, which was more than enough as the team played sharp defense and withstood a late Walla Walla run to take an 8-4 victory.
“No better time to do it than now I guess,” Kerns said after the game. “The guys did a really good job — that first inning helps out to give me that cushion. It makes my job to just throw strikes. I don’t have to get too cute, throwing it on the black or whatever.”
The Sox unloaded one of their trademark 2-out rallies in the bottom of the first. Wenatchee’s first two hitters struck out and it appeared Sweets starter Sean Silva would roll easily through the AppleSox lineup. But Brock Slavin had a ten-pitch plate appearance that eventually ended in a walk. Then Connor Spencer grooved a single to left-center to move Slavin to third. After a Stockton Taylor walk that loaded the bases, “left fielder” Eric Hutting, Joey Jansen and Joey Harris hit consecutive singles through the left side of the infield, which plated one apiece.
“That was typical Brock, just fighting and clawing as much as he could, wanting to do something after we strike out twice,” Wenatchee head coach Ed Knaggs said about Slavin’s first plate appearance. “Then all of a sudden, yikes, here we go. That’s a guy you want in the middle of the lineup. And Connor is hitting the heck out of the ball, as usual.”
Nate Steffler worked yet another walk — he had the second-most free passes on the team despite not being a utility player — to plate the fourth run of the inning. Brett Stephens struck out for the second time in the same frame to end the threat, but Silva had already thrown 43 pitches and was behind 4-0.
“I’m not trying to go out there and take big hacks at first pitches. I’m trying to see as many pitches as I can get, battle deep in counts and get on base,” Steffler said of his approach. “(Silva) was kind of missing, he was struggling a little bit, so I used that to my advantage.”
The second was a lot like the first. Silva retired the first two batters, but then his first-pitch fastball to Spencer caught a little too much of the plate as the lefty from UC Irvine hit an absolute shot over the fence in center field. Taylor followed that by grooving a single to left, and an error by the Sweets third baseman Jarod Gonzales on a scorching groundball from Hutting loaded the bases. Walla Walla manager J.C. Biagi had seen enough of Silva, who went just 1 2/3 innings.
“Two great innings with two outs, that was pretty impressive,” Knaggs said. “… (Silva) looked like a guy that could be tough if he’s getting his breaking pitch over. Certainly we got after him with some balls that we hit. He didn’t seem to be real sharp there early.”
Silva, a University of Southern California Trojan, surrendered seven runs on six hits. It was the worst start of the lefty’s summer as he hadn’t given up more than four runs in a contest this season. He also gave up his second highest hit total and recorded the least number of outs.
Silva’s replacement Connor Dillman didn’t fare much better. The righty from Santa Monica issued three walks in a row to Jansen, Harris and Steffler — two of which brought runners home. Dillman mercifully got out of the inning when Stephens’ line drive hung up just long enough to be caught by the left fielder.
The AppleSox joined patience with Sweets inaccuracy to start the game, which forced Silva and Dillman to combine for 100 pitches in the first three innings.
Kerns threw strikes and kept the game moving in typical Kerns-fashion. He threw eight innings, surrendering only six hits.
“Beau, he saved us by pitching well with that lead, he pumped strikes,” Knaggs said. “He threw fastballs, kept the ball down and let them get themselves out, and they did. He didn’t walk guys and make it interesting that way. They swung the bat and it tended to go to us and we were making plays.”
Kerns threw six near-flawless innings before running into trouble. Kris Paulino led off the seventh frame with a ground-rule double over the right field wall. Two batters later Renae Martinez turned on a 3-2 pitch for a 2-run homer.
The Sweets came out in the eighth hitting the ball hard too. But Steffler made a leaping play at short to stop a rally from starting after Luke Persico had a pinch-hit single.
WVC pitcher Lars Rider relieved Kerns in the ninth and gave up three straight hits. After giving up two runs, and walking a man, Rider relaxed and ended the game by punching out Walla Walla leadoff hitter Matt Mendenhall.
Regardless of the ninth inning psuedo drama, the AppleSox used only two pitchers and Rider could be available in a couple days, according to Knaggs, because he didn’t have too long of an outing. Perserving pitchers in the first of a three-game series could be huge, according to the team.
“We lost a lot of guys. (Going deep and perserving arms) today was big because we only used two guys, who were pounding the zone,” Kerns said. “Lars had a rough start and came back and threw well.”
C.J. Burdick, who just finished his senior year of high school, will start tonight in Walla Walla. The future San Diego Torero has the lowest earned run average of any of Wenatchee’s starters.
“If he does what he’s been doing all summer, that should give us a chance,” Knaggs said.
The Sweets will start Chris Lovejoy, who one-hit the team in June, but was shelled in North Central Washington in July.
“It’s been a long summer and it’s neat (the AppleSox) are in this situation to win the division series and to see our hard work pay off,” Knaggs said. “But we still have a lot to do.”
NOTES: Owner/general manager Jim Corcoran honored eight men before the game who helped get the new backstop netting installed at Paul Thomas Sr. Baseball Stadium. … Slavin set the team record for most strikeouts. He ended the regular season with 42. The previous record was 40. Brett Stephens finished with 38. … Stephens and Grant Palmer made six of the first seven outs the Sweets could record. … The same three AppleSox runners were stranded at the same three bases in the first and second innings. … The Sweets threw 198 total pitches Tuesday. The Sox only hurled the ball 130 times … The Sox have bid farewell to hitters Joe Mello, Andre Real, Ryan Barr and Kramer Ferrell — who combined for 156 hits, 37 doubles, 89 runs scored, 10 homers and 76 RBI this year. Pitchers Vaughn Berberet, Stuart Patke and Chris McDowell are all gone as well.