Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wolverines battle to the final pitch at state

Hot streak ends with close losses to BK, Minico

Express Staff Writer

No Wood River player has come as far this season as junior catcher Sean Bunce, shown here stroking one of 21 Wolverine hits in the 16-2 win at Jerome May 6. Coach Matt Nelson said, “Sean didn’t want to catch last year, but he has turned into one of the toughest kids on the team. Now he’s lights out as a catcher.” Bunce’s communication with pitcher Pat Patterson was one of Wood River’s keys down the homestretch of a fine season. Photo by David N. Seelig

Wood River High School athletic director John Rade was there for all three days of last week's State 4A prep baseball tournament in Nampa. He summed up the Wolverine effort about as well as anyone.

Rade said, "We were a few hits away from winning the whole state tournament."

Certainly that was the case, taking into account Wood River's very tough 5-3 loss to eventual State 4A champion Bishop Kelly of Boise in Friday's semi-final game, and the 7-6 loss to league rival Minico of Rupert in Saturday's third-place game for a state trophy.

Wood River ended up in fourth place behind Boise-area powers Bishop Kelly and Skyview, and pre-tournament favorite Minico. And the Wolverines (46-60 since entering 4A in 2005) pushed Minico (97-26 since 2005, state winner in 2005) all the way to the final pitch.

For three days in 85- to 90-degree Treasure Valley heat, the Wolverines rode the gutty pitching of seniors Pat Patterson and Trent Seamons—and a defense that stiffened and played its best baseball in the final two weeks of the season.

"We battled hard and came back in each game, and the games we lost could have gone either way," said a proud Wood River coach Matt Nelson about the Hailey school's first-ever visit to the State 4A tourney. "We showed that we can play this game as well as anyone."

Senior second baseman Tyler Israel said, "We were confident we could compete with anyone, especially with the way Pat was pitching the last two weeks. And the defense stepped up. It was great to see the way everybody, all the way around the field, came together and played great defense."

Overlooked and disrespected before the eight-team tournament staged on a boiling hot weekend on Lofholm Field at Nampa's Rodeo Park, Wood River (10-20) proved that your won-lost record doesn't mean everything. It's about desire and how you play the game.

No Wolverine had more desire than Patterson, who pitched his team to state with three straight loser-out wins over Burley 5-2, Jerome 16-2 and Bonneville of Idaho Falls 6-2. Patterson's one-hit masterpiece in Thursday's 4-0 state victory over Lakeland of Rathdrum was one for the ages.

Keep in mind that Patterson (110 pitches against Lakeland) caught seven innings for Seamons in Friday's 5-3 loss to Bishop Kelly, which made Patterson's 149-pitch complete-game effort against Minico Saturday even more impressive. Tireless, Patterson was the dominant pitcher at state.

"Gutsy is the only word to describe what Pat did," said coach Nelson. "He went out and earned the respect of the other teams. He was determined."

Amazingly, the games against Bishop Kelly and Minico were right there within reach, aching to be won by the underdogs from Wood River.

Playing against Bishop Kelly, the Wolverines rallied from a 4-0 first-inning deficit and kept installing runners all over the bases, but stranded 11, seven in scoring position.

The next day, in 90-degree heat, Wood River fell behind 5-1 to heavily-favored Minico but rallied with four unearned runs in the sixth for a 6-5 lead—only to lose 7-6 when the Spartans scored twice in the home seventh. Wood River stranded 10, six in scoring position.

"We just couldn't get those big runs. But we never stopped fighting and battling," said Nelson. "We played our hearts out and I couldn't be prouder."

Bishop Kelly (25-5) won its first state baseball title in eight years 6-3 over Skyview of Nampa (18-12) on Saturday. Silenced Thursday by Patterson, Lakeland stormed back to win the consolation trophy with 7-6 and 9-8 nine-inning wins over Pocatello and Rigby.

Chipping away at state

Seamons plans to be playing outfield for Treasure Valley Community College next fall, but Nelson summoned the slim senior to the hill Friday opposite Bishop Kelly junior Nico Lytle, a rangy righthander.

The Knights jumped all over Seamons in the first inning, Randy Hall's two-run double making it 4-0. Wood River's defense sparkled when Trent's replacement in center field, Sean Bunce, started a relay to second baseman Israel and over to Greg Wakefield at third. The relay nailed Hall, trying for a triple, for the first out.

From there on, Seamons settled in nicely and retired nine of the next 10 Knights batters to keep his team close. Indeed, righthander Seamons (91 pitches, 6 hits, 4 K, 1 BB) allowed only one run the rest of the way and most of the balls didn't even leave the infield.

"Trent got dialed in and pitched well," Nelson said.

One BK ball that left the infield, in the sixth inning, was grabbed nicely by Bunce at the center field fence. First baseman Bryan Bray made three unassisted putouts including a tough bad hop bouncer. Hailey earned another out on a slick relay, left fielder Travis Job to shortstop Michale Brunker and over to Bray, covering second.

At the plate, Wood River threatened nearly every inning. Bunce's two-out, two-run double in the second made it 4-2. With two outs and two aboard in the third, Patterson hit a rope to right center which Knights center fielder Nic Buich caught, diving. The catch was disputed, but it was an out.

Israel (2 hits) sparked a fifth-inning threat with an opposite-field single and Wood River loaded the bases with no outs, but the Wolverines scored only one run on a Danny Kramer bases-loaded walk. The Knights still led 5-3 when a bunch of weirdness started the seventh.

Brunker took Knights reliever Justice Mariscal to a 3-2 count and lifted a pop fly around home plate that BK catcher John Rezendes flat-out dropped for an error. Instead of getting another chance, Brunker was ruled out by the home plate umpire because one of the Hailey bench players apparently yelled "I got it!" while the ball was still in play, in the air near the dugout.

"That's a BK call," said a spectating Pocatello coach, referring to the tendency of umpires to defer to the omnipresent Bishop Kelly fan gallery and super-sized coaching staff.

Seamons (2 hits) kept it alive with an infield single and Patterson ripped a two-out line single to left. Mariscal plunked Wakefield to jam the sacks, but a strikeout ended the game.

"It just wasn't our day," said Nelson, whose team out-hit the champions 8-6.

Patterson, headed for Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay to play baseball next fall, nearly made it Wood River's day Saturday against a Minico squad (27-3) that Nelson and his boys had been targeting since their 16-2 blow-out win at Jerome May 6.

"We were hoping to play Minico in the state championship game but we were happy to get another shot at them," said Israel, whose team had lost 9-0, 5-2 and 13-3 to the Spartans. "And we had a shot to win."

The visiting Wolverines struck first off Minico righty R.J. Salvi. Abbott (2 hits, 3 runs) belted a one-out double and scored on Israel's RBI single in the third inning.

Then the bottom half of Minico's batting order (5-for-8, 5 runs) started pecking away at Patterson. Minico manufactured three runs on four hits and two walks. Only one ball left the infield. The second consecutive 4-6-3 Wood River double play started by Israel through shortstop Brunker ended the rally, Minico up 3-1.

Two walks sent Salvi to the showers, rather over to third base, in the Hailey fourth. But Wood River couldn't score, and Minico tacked on two more runs, one unearned, for a 5-1 lead after four full frames.

In the fifth, Abbott led off with a single and scored on an RBI single by Seamons (2 hits, 2 RBI). On the hill, Patterson (149 pitches, 8 hits, 6 earned runs, 7 BB, 2 K) started getting stronger, if that was possible. After all, he threw the ball the 60-foot distance more than 350 times over three days including his stint as catcher Friday.

And it was hot.

Seemingly out of nowhere, similar to their whole post-season miracle run, the Wolverines batted around in the sixth and scored four runs for a 6-5 lead, helped considerably by three Minico errors.

Lighting up the rally were leadoff singles by Wakefield and Bunce. With the bases full, Israel walked home a run. Brunker delivered a fielder's choice grounder. Seamons pushed the go-ahead run home with a bloop single. Suddenly, Minico was a little worried—its three-year streak of State 4A hardware in dire jeopardy.

Patterson escaped a jam and a jammed landing-foot ankle in the sixth, Wakefield making a nice catch on a pop fly down the left field line. Coach Nelson made sure to visit Patterson on the mound after the pitcher came down wrong on the ankle.

Nelson said, "I told him, now is the time to dig down deep and throw the ball." And that's what Patterson did, whiffing #2 hitter Cody Winmill to end the inning. And, in the seventh, Jimmy Hague's catch in right field gave Wood River its first out—with victory in sight.

But Patterson walked clean-up hitter Salvi, and Bubba Christiansen, who had bounced into two twin killings and fanned, lifted a fly ball just out of Hague's diving reach along the right field line. It went for a double, putting Spartans at second and third with one out.

Alex Moon's sacrifice fly tied the game 6-6, and Minico shortstop Landon Barnes (3 hits) delivered Christiansen with the winning run on a clean RBI single up the middle, just out of Patterson's reach.

"We weren't intimidated at all by Minico, but Minico kept chipping away. We couldn't get past the bottom guys in their batting order. That's a quality ball club," said Nelson en route to meeting with his team for the final time—and to "tell the seniors how much I appreciate them and what they've done."

WOLVERINE NOTES—Close games dominated at state baseball. Out of 11 games, five were decided by a single run, two were two-run games and one was a three-run outcome......Only once before has Wood River (13 runs scored, 12 against) played such low-scoring games at state baseball. The Wolverines placed fourth this year, and were also fourth in 2004 beating Middleton 3-2, losing to Preston 4-2 and Bear Lake 10-9.....Wood River is now 9-11 in its seven state tournament appearances topped by its 3-0 record, 36-2 runs-against in the State 3A championship run of 2003.... Pat Patterson's 1-hit shutout Thursday in the 4-0 win over Lakeland was Wood River's first seven-inning shutout at state. Steve Hansen threw a 10-0 five-inning shutout at Fruitland in 2003.....The only opponent last weekend that Wood River had faced before at state baseball was Bishop Kelly, in 1999. The Wolverines beat the Knights 17-10 in that game for third place in 3A.....

Statistically, Wood River committed 6 errors compared to 9 miscues for its three state opponents. The Wolverines (.247 state batting average) out-hit their state foes 20-15. Clean-up hitter Trent Seamons (4-for-9, 2 RBI, 2 BB, .444) was the top batsman. Hitting .300 were Tyler Israel (3-for-10, 2 RBI) and Pat Patterson (3-for-10). Leadoff Keven Abbott (3 hits, 4 runs, 2 doubles) and Danny Kramer (4 RBI) were leaders in their categories. Catcher Sean Bunce had a pair of sacrifice bunts along with 2 RBI. Greg Wakefield scored 3 runs and knocked a double.

Two interested spectators at Friday's Wood River game against Bishop Kelly were brothers Cris Aldinger and Josh Aldinger, Wood River Valley natives who now live in the Treasure Valley. Southpaw Cris was one of eight seniors on Wood River's first high school baseball team coached by Lars Hovey and Norm Cook in 1992. Current Wood River coach Matt Nelson was one of four freshmen on that first team. Josh Aldinger has the distinction of being the first player to hit safely in a game at Hailey's Founders Field. That was back on July 8, 1996 when the Wood River American Legion team swept Shoshone in the field christening. Now a teacher and wrestling coach in Meridian, Josh singled and scored the first Founders Field run. Later he hit the first one-bounce blow to the outfield fence. Field umpire for that game was Mike Brunker, father of shortstop Michale Brunker......Hilarie Neely, mother of Wood River junior Travis Job, was struck in the head by an overthrown ball while she sat in the bleachers during warm-ups for Friday's BK-Wood River game. Emergency personnel made sure Neely was okay and she watched the entire game.....Skyview coach Ryan Bobo guided the Buhl Tribe baseball team for several campaigns, through 2004. He coached Skyview to the brink of a championship in its first State 4A tournament apperance since 2002.

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