Monday, July 22, 2013
WALLA WALLA — Is this a championship team?
Walla Walla Sweets manager J.C. Biagi offered a two-part response to that question following his club’s 3-1 victory over the Bellingham Bells Sunday at Borleske Stadium, a result that squeezed the Sweets into a first-place divisional tie (again) with Wenatchee and clinched the season series — and possible standings-tiebreaker — against Bellingham.
“Yeah,” Biagi said, without hesitation, or arrogance, or blinking.
Then he paused for a long time, as if testing his answer against some private, inner criteria.
“Yeah,” he repeated.
If Walla Walla (22-17) reaches the West Coast League postseason, its playoff games will probably unfold according to the same principles that decided the win Sunday, when the team that made the best pitches in clutch situations and the best swings at critical moments won. Playoff games also tend to be close, put pressure on bullpens and reward two-out hits.
And if the Sweets win those categories as emphatically as they did in securing a 2-1 series win and 4-2 season-series win over third-place Bellingham (20-18), the final 15 games of the ever-dwindling regular season will catapult them into the playoffs.
“Championships are interesting things,” Biagi said. “A lot of it comes down to having good at-bats and picking up ground balls. But by all indications, we are 100 percent that quality.”
Starting pitcher Matt Hall was that quality, having what Sweets pitching coach Mark Michaud called a “good ‘bad’ day” during an eventful, resourceful 6 1/3-inning stint.
“He wasn’t as crisp as he’s been. But he worked out of trouble,” Michaud said of Hall. “He managed the game.”
After surrendering his only run on the third at-bat of the game, a creamed opposite-field home run by one of the WCL’s most feared sluggers, Alex Calbick, Hall scrambled in and out of trouble to a respectable pitching line: one earned run, four hits, five walks, seven strikeouts.
And thanks to a pair of two-out hits by his teammates — Renae Martinez’s two-run single in the bottom of the first and Spencer O’Neil’s RBI double in the bottom of the third — Hall had a 3-1 lead to give his bullpen.
The way Biagi and Michaud handled the bullpen spoke to the playoff vibe and tenor of the game, their chess moves targeting Calbick’s looming final turn at the plate in the high-leverage later innings.
And the way relievers Drew Christina, Connor Lawhead and Sean-Luke Brija responded spoke to the Sweets’ championship bonafides.
Christina answered Biagi’s mayday call in the top of the seventh after Hall had walked two batters, the second following a successful sacrifice bunt.
Summoned to face the left-handed batting Johnny Sewald, the southpaw Christina ended that showdown with a high fastball for strike three looking.
“Huge strikeout,” Michaud said. “He had an unreal start in his last start, then had five days off. He did what he’s done all year.”
Switch-hitter Johnny Farrington was due up next; the Sweets elected to attack Farrington’s lefty persona, summoning righty Connor Lawhead from the ’pen.
Biagi had already decided to throw Lawhead and his excellent off-speed command at Calbick, who was on deck, so the confrontation with Farrington served as a useful preamble.
Lawhead coaxed a pop-out to short to end the sixth. Then he whiffed Calbick to open the eighth and retired the next two batters to get the lead to the ninth — and Sean-Luke Brija territory.
Brija, coming off a six-out save on Friday — his longest closing appearance of the summer — worked around a two-out walk to record his WCL-leading ninth save.
“Games like this, close games, come down to making plays,” said Biagi. “Overall, in the big picture, it is obviously very thick (at the top of the North Division). Over the next few weeks, I think you’ll start to see some separation.
“Hopefully, it’s us.”
Nine Sweets make the trip to Victoria, British Columbia, for the West Coast League All-Star game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Sweets 3, Bellingham 1
Bellingham 100 000 000 — 1 4 0
Walla Walla 201 000 00x — 3 8 0
Freter, Radan (7) and Bailey; Hall, Christina (7), Lawhead (7), Brija (9) and Martinez.
HRs — Bel: Calbick.
Hits — Bel: Calbick 2, Yamane, Beall. WW: Skrbec 3, Mendenhall 2, Martinez 2, O’Neil.