If two games going to extra innings wasn't evidence of the close competition between the Estacada and Molalla baseball teams this season, then the third meeting extending beyond regulation play surely is.
Heading into Tuesday's matchup, both teams stood at 10-3 in league play with only one game to follow that wouldn't play a factor in the standings. The Tri-Valley champion would be crowned that night.
In their three meetings this season, the two teams have played four games' worth of innings, (eight on April 21, 12 on April 29, and eight again on May 9) as the Indians looked to strip the Rangers of their Tri-Valley title held the previous season and achieve something no Molalla team has done since 1995.
That record still stands, however, as Estacada was able to pull out a 3-2 victory in the eighth inning and secure the Tri-Valley title for the second year in a row.
"It feels good, it's awesome to come out here and get the league championship," Estacada senior winning pitcher Andrew Avants said. "There's nothing better than having it happen on senior night especially."
"Our whole mindset was to let them put the ball in play and have us put the ball in play, and good things will happen."
Senior Levi Albrecht, who hit the walk-off single, agreed: "It feels great knowing we'll get another home game here too," he said.
The game was once again a defensive battle as both pitchers threw double-digit strikeouts, and would eventually be decided by Estacada's second earned run of the three recorded that evening.
Tuesday's matchup again went to extra innings as the game stood tied at two at the end of regulation. Molalla took the plate in the top of the eighth and eventually loaded the bases as sophomore Jeff Larsen and senior Aaron Alexander connected to get on base, followed by an intentional walk for senior Will Schaefer after Avants struck out his 11th batter of the night, his high for the season.
It was a strangely familiar situation that only baseball can offer, as Molalla freshman Damien Pingo again took the plate with the chance to drive in the go-ahead run with the bases loaded. In their previous meeting on April 29, Pingo faced the same situation, including seeing Schaefer walked intentionally the previous at-bat. But unlike the previous game where Pingo was hit by pitch to drive in the winning run, the final out of the inning did not occur at the plate.
Well, it did, just not in the batter's box.
Avants faked a pickoff throw to first and instead turned to third, expecting Larsen to make a move towards home plate, which he did. Larsen was caught in a pickle and eventually tagged out on the slide into home by Estacada senior catcher Kodey James on the throw from senior third baseman Orion Alexander. Molalla left three on base as Estacada now had a chance to win the game.
Leadoff batter sophomore Nick Keller took the plate first and sent a scorcher down the third base line that was muffed by Molalla junior Hunter Dublin, allowing Keller to advance to second and stand in scoring position.
Senior Gerardo Avalos took his at-bat next, but Molalla's Alexander wasn't going down without a fight as he earned his 10th strikeout of the game, putting Albrecht in the batter's box next.
Like Keller before him, Albrecht sent a shot tight to the third base line into left field as Keller rounded third. The throw from Dublin was nanoseconds too late as Keller slid underneath Molalla junior catcher Braden Hibbs and tagged the plate to win the game and the league title.
And it could be said that baserunning errors like the one in the top of the eighth cost Molalla the game; in the top of the third, Molalla left three runners on base as Avants again baited a runner at first with a pickoff move.
With the bases loaded, Schaefer took his lead from first as Avants made a move his way, catching Schaefer off-guard as he moved towards second instead of back to his bag at first, only to realize that the bases were loaded. However, Alexander, on third base, saw the pickle and headed home, allowing Hibbs, who had just smashed a two-RBI double two at-bats ago, to move to third and free up second base for Schaefer.
Estacada didn't take the bait at second, however, and threw home, tagging out Alexander to end the inning and hold Molalla's rally to two runs.
In the top of the fourth, Avants continued to deal as he ended the inning with three strikeouts to earn his fifth, sixth, and seventh of the night.
After the game, Avants said he had used a statistic given to him by assistant coach Riley Falk for motivation: the whole season, Avants had only pitched in one game where he didn't throw a strikeout.
"Tonight I was thinking about what coach Riley said: 'When you start pitching, let them hit the ball instead of throwing to make them miss the ball, and good things will happen,' and that was my mindset tonight, to keep the ball low in the zone and let [the defense] make plays," Avants said.
Avants only walked two batters on the night, though both of them were intentional; Alexander in the top of the third and Schaefer in the top of the eighth. He said doing that is something the Rangers have done all season to put themselves in a position to turn a double play.
In the bottom of the fourth as the Rangers trailed 2-0, Molalla recorded their second error of the game as Albrecht sent a grounder to shortstop, only to see the throw sail past Schaefer as Albrecht stood safe on the bag.
Senior Sam Blankenship took the plate next while Albrecht stole second, beating Hibbs' throw. Blankenship sent a hot grounder to second as Larsen bobbled the ball while Albrecht scored and Blankenship was able to advance to second due to the throw home to try and save the run from scoring. Estacada was now on the board.
Then as senior Sheridan Brady took the plate, Hibbs attempted to pick off Blankenship at second as he took off for third and was called safe.
But Brady couldn't connect as Alexander recorded his fifth strikeout of the game.
Senior Lane Sittner took the plate next and hit a sacrifice fly to center field as Blankenship tagged up at third and beat junior Kolten Jordan's throw home.
Avants took the plate next and was nearly given a base as freshman Linden Mackenzie's throw from third came in low, but Schaefer was able to scoop it up and end the inning.
Not much happened as each pitcher began to find their zone, recording strikeout after strikeout, until Estacada had the chance to win the game in the bottom of the seventh.
Sittner started the inning off with a line drive to center field for a single as Avants then laid down a sacrifice bunt back to Alexander, allowing Sittner to advance to second.
Then James sent a grounder to third as Mackenzie looked off Sittner at second and made the throw at first, but Sittner went anyways and beat Schaefer's throw back to third.
Estacada's Alexander took the plate next with the winning run standing on third and two outs on the board. He sent a short, hopping grounder back to the pitcher as Alexander was able to tag him out and send the game to extra innings, where the Rangers eventually pulled out the win.
Molalla still has one game left in league play; they'll head to 1-19 Corbett on Thursday for what will likely be a tune-up game for the Indians before playoffs begin.
"I texted the kids last night to let them know how proud I am of them," Molalla head coach Jim Dantona said Wednesday afternoon. "We certainly didn't like to lose the way we did, but we played a great season and a lot of people thought with our young team and change of coaches that we wouldn't do so well."
"We came within 90 feet of breaking the 22-year drought," Dantona said. "And while we came close, in baseball, close ain't good enough."
Dantona commented on the team's baserunning errors in the game that have been a strong component of Dantona's "small ball" philosophy all season.
"When you play small ball, a running game, you take big chances," he said. "But the rewards are even bigger; I just believe that sometimes you catch teams off-balance."
Dantona also said he thought the game was a pitchers' duel and that it would come down to whoever made the last mistake would lose, which it did.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, Molalla will get a play-in game against a to-be-determined opponent on May 18.
"I don't massively change things; I might try something on one team more than the other, but I'm telling the kids that what got us here is our heart, and we finally believe we are as good as we really are," Dantona said. "I don't care who we're playing, if they're ranked really high, the bottom line is I think we have the capability of winning some games in the playoffs. I've coached a lot of baseball, and I've never had more fun than coaching these kids."
In the meantime, the Rangers will head to Gladstone Thursday for a game that means nothing more than bragging rights and a chance to avenge their 4-0 loss to the Glads from May 4. After that, they'll play a non-league endowment game at Wilson High School on May 16.
Sports Reporter/News Contributor
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