WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee AppleSox rebounded from a deflating sweep in Bend by pounding the Walla Walla Sweets in the opening game of a series that could have major playoff implications.
In head coach Ed Knaggs’ 700th game leading the Sox, the team knocked around a pitcher that held them to just one hit over a month ago in Walla Walla. Wenatchee rode a consistent offensive attack, near-flawless fielding and surprisingly good pitching for a 10-1 victory.
“We’d been struggling, facing a guy who basically no-hit us, and we’ve had our struggles with lefties, but we were smashing it,” Knaggs said after the game.
The first play of Tuesday’s game made it appear that Wenatchee’s struggles would continue as shortstop Joe Mello fielded a ground ball but couldn’t make an accurate throw to put out the runner. That leadoff hitter, John Skrbec, eventually scored in the opening frame, but proved to be the Sweets’ only run.
The Sox answered right back in their half of the first, when Mello led off the inning with a double that he reached third on due to an error by Walla Walla’s center fielder. Mello scored three pitches later on a Ryan Barr ground out. Brock Slavin then stroked a double to the opposite field and the Gonzaga center fielder scored two hitters later when Connor Spencer reached on an error, which put the Sox up 2-1 — a lead the home team would never relinquish.
“We started off with a shaky first inning but we came back in the bottom of the first,” Mello said. “After that we got our momentum going.”
Wenatchee really busted the game open in the bottom of the third: Andre Real started the offensive onslaught by reaching on an error, and moved to third on Spencer’s second single of the contest. Real then scored on a Kramer Ferrell groundout and Spencer was plated by a Joey Harris base hit. A Stockton Taylor single put runners on first and second for UCLA-committ Brett Stephens. Stephens saw two pitches before hitting his third home run of the season on a no-doubter over the right field wall.
The Sweets had five errors in the opening three frames and six total. All nine players in the AppleSox lineup had reached base by the end of the third, and all 10 Wenatchee hitters that played in the game earned a hit at some point in the contest.
“This guy (Walla Walla starting pitcher Chris Lovejoy) was just as good as what we were facing in Bend,” Knaggs said. “What exactly made (the improved offensive output) happen? That’s what’s so crazy. You can’t put your finger on it.”
Sox starter Stuart Patke rebounded from his worst start of the season last week against Bellingham — in which he gave up six runs in just one inning of work — with his best outing of the year. The tall Texan threw six frames, scattered four hits and allowed only the one run.
“It felt good tonight, had most of my stuff working,” Patke said. “Curveball wasn’t exactly there but I had command of the fastball and changeup.”
Patke got even more run support in the bottom of the fourth, when Spencer hit a solo home run to lead off the inning. Spencer extended his league-lead for best batting average with a 4-for-5 night, including his first homer of the season.
“I’ve been trying to do that for a while now — get a hold of one like that — definitely got some backspin on it, watched it fly, I hit it well and I’m really happy with it,” the first baseman from UC Irvine said.
The win — paired with a Bellingham loss — puts the AppleSox within a half-game of first place.
“Hope (the players are) not ready to go home,” Knaggs said. “We’d like to extend this thing. It’s going to be an absolute fight down the stretch, and I hope it is. A couple games the wrong way and you could be on the outside looking in.”
The Sox will pitch Trevor Lubking tonight. The opening-night starter has struggled as of late, including giving up two runs in his inning of the All-Star Game. The team also skipped the lefty from Pacific Lutheran’s last scheduled start.
“He’s had a little bit of rest and is full of piss and vinegar,” Knaggs said about Lubking. “He hasn’t been as good as he was early on or last year. So yeah, I like our chances. It’s another day, so here we go.”
Knaggs hits 700
There are some remarkable numbers for Knaggs over his 700 games with the AppleSox. (All statistics courtesy of scorekeeper and local historian Bruce Bennett.)
The skipper is 455-245 (.650) with the team since starting June 1, 2001. Over his 13 years with the team, Knaggs has missed the playoffs only once — his first summer with the team. He has won the regular season division crown nine times and came in second twice, as well as winning six West Coast League titles.
Knaggs said he had no idea after Tuesday’s game that it was a landmark contest. He said he would’ve guessed he was around 450 total games.
When asked if he is ever going to reflect on his long tenure with the Sox, he deflected the question in typical Knaggs style.
“We get good kids,” he said. Knaggs has coached 341 young men with the AppleSox. “We’re fortunate that the schools send us good guys. I know the coaches, they know it’s a good situation here.”
But, when asked about the importance of upcoming game No. 701, he couldn’t help but note the high number of games coached.
“That’s a long time,” he said, emphasizing “long”.
“That’s a lot of (batting practice). That’s a lot of BP.”