YAKIMA, Wash. — The Skyline baseball team has rightfully cast itself as the poster child for the well-worn ‘we want to be playing our best ball at the end of the season.’
The Spartans barely made it into the tournament to begin with — no, not state. Their district tournament.
But after winning a pigtail matchup as the seventh-seed out no less, Skyline has been on a roll, and kept things going Saturday when they hit Yakima County Stadium.
The Spartans first dispatched No. 3-seed West Valley 4-2, limiting the brawny Rams lineup to a paltry two hits. Then, in a matchup of Spartans, Skyline lefty Madox Nicola held No. 11 Sumner hitless for 4 2/3 innings and right-hander Jacob Petersen squelched a rally in the seventh for a 3-1 victory.
The wins push Skyline back to the Class 4A state final four for the fifth time and first since they claimed the 2016 championship.
A 10 a.m. matchup Friday against second-seeded Puyallup at Pasco’s Gesa Stadium awaits the Spartans. No. 1 Olympia and fourth-seeded Richland will follow in the second semi.
“We’re definitely peaking at the right time,” Skyline coach Brandon Hemphill deadpanned about his club, which won 5 of 6 just in 12 days just to get to Yakima after finishing the regular season 9-11.
Saturday, though, that ho-hum win-loss record was hardly apparent for the upstarts, particularly viewed through their defense and pitching.
After stymying the locals from West Valley with error-free play to back starter Brandon Junker and Nicola’s inning of relief, Skyline turned in another blemish-free defensive effort against Sumner.
“That’s been the difference between the regular season and this postseason,” Hemphill said. “Our defense has really clicked and we’ve had some fantastic defensive performances and we got two of them today.
“That finally allowed our pitchers to feel freed up to throw all their pitches in any count and any situation.”
Skyline’s defense helped keep Sumner off the board while Nicola worked through early control issues as he walked three batters and plunked another in the first two innings.
“Every time I go to the mound, I know my defense has got me,” Nicola said. “They told me, ‘Hey, slow it down, the defense is going to be there,’ and sure enough.
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For its part, Sumner also played solid defense much of the game, but a pair of errors aided Skyline’s two-run rally in the first. Agassi Owen singled home Danny Wate, who had reached on an error, and then came home himself on Sumner’s second miscue of the inning.
Joaquin Valdez scored Owen in the third with the first of his two doubles.
Sumner, which beat Kamiakin 3-1 to start the day, broke through in the seventh with three hits, including an RBI double by Jay Mentink to score Bradley Carl. Petersen, who pitched a perfect sixth, induced a ground ball with two runners aboard to end the threat and start the celebration.
“We’re picking each other up in the dugout, doing the small things,” Nicola said. “Everybody doubted us – it’s fun to keep playing.”
--Jerrel Swenning; @JSwenning.