PASCO — As the number of lopsided wins piled up, and the Puyallup High School baseball team climbed higher in the national rankings, the Vikings’ quest for a perfect season took on an air of inevitability.
But the state-playoff gauntlet — and its unforgiving, instant-death format — has reminded Puyallup just how fragile that quest is, as one- and two-run victories in the first two rounds nudged the season to cliff’s edge.
A Class 4A state semifinal against Woodinville on an immaculate Friday afternoon at Gesa Stadium followed suit.
“I would rather be playing in close games,” said Puyallup catcher Brendan Illies, after the Vikings survived, 3-2, to clinch a berth in the state title game. “It’s so much more intense. It’s better. It’s … fun — as long as it’s close.”
Puyallup (27-0) will face South Kitsap (21-4), which won a tidy, 10-0 semifinal by way of mercy rule in six innings over Wenatchee, for the championship at Gesa Stadium at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Vikings are seeking the program’s first state championship after losses in the 2009 and 2012 title games.
Those near-misses are peripheral to the current squad’s motivation. Puyallup committed to a 28-0 season — and not merely a state title — during the 2013 end-of-year team banquet, in the wake of a 22-2 season and early playoff exit.
“We had all underclassmen; we weren’t a very good ballclub when the cards were down,” Vikings coach Marc Weise said. “We had to find a way to be grittier and tougher.”
Those traits have emerged the past two weekends, by necessity, and reached their apogee against a fearless, aggressive Woodinville squad that was just one game over .500 after the first 13 games this season. The Falcons managed eight hits against Puyallup ace Luke Heimlich — the most the junior left-hander has allowed in a game this season — and mustered a two-run rally in the bottom of the sixth inning that erased all but the last filament of a 3-0 Vikings lead.
Heimlich, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a oral commit to Oregon State, entered the game with a 10-0 record in 10 starts, and a litany of other jaw-dropping metrics. He led almost instantly; Adam Stump’s groundout scoring Darian Clemens for a 1-0 edge in the top of the second.
As the lead grew by increments — an RBI single by Owen Breithaupt in the fourth, Clemens’ run-scoring double to the warning track in the fifth — Heimlich ducked trouble. He stranded runners at third base in the first and second innings, and runners at first in the third and fourth.
“He wasn’t invincible,” Weise said. “It happens. We were gonna live and die with Luke in this game.”
A breezy, eight-pitch fifth inning for Heimlich was a false lull. The sixth masqueraded as a continuation; eight pitches in, Heimlich had recorded his seventh strikeout and coaxed a groundout to vacuum shortstop Levi Jordan.
Then Davis Ballie boomed a triple to the alley in deep right-center, and Chris Okura slapped a single up the middle to score him. Okura stole second and scored on Trevor Cook’s base hit up the box to make it 3-2, but Cook was thrown out, 8-2-6, in an impossibly close play at second as he tried to advance on the throw home.
“He didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled,” Weise said of Heimlich. “He refuses to allow us to lose.”
Added Heimlich: “I didn’t actually feel much pressure today. I’m confident in myself. I’m kind of used to this situation.”
Heimlich worked a 1-2-3 seventh, each out coming on routine grounders to Jordan at short, and Puyallup survived.
“We knew we were a bunch of dirt dawgs,” said Heimlich. “No one takes an inning off. No one wants to be the weak link.”
Puyallup beat South Kitsap twice — 5-1 on March 19 and 10-0 on May 17. The Wolves lost to Skyview in the 2013 title game.
The Vikings will likely send No. 2 starter Lane Griffin (9-0, one save) to the mound against South Kitsap.
“We’ve played ’em twice already. It’s gonna be a battle,” Wiese said. “Our goal from the get-go was to go 28-0. Now we have that opportunity.”