The deficit was far from overwhelming. Tumwater had rallied from several similar situations over the season, but in the end, the Thunderbirds simply could not figure out Liberty pitcher Nate Steffens.
“He was sneaky enough to get us to pop up,” Tumwater coach Clay Hill said about the senior. “He was crafty enough where we never got good swings in a row on him.”
Steffens pitched six strong innings, striking out eight, and the Patriots — aided by a stout defense, some timely hits and a couple costly T-Birds errors — put an end to Tumwater’s season with a 3-0 victory in the Class 2A Region III baseball tournament at Wheeler Field in Centralia on Saturday.
The T-Birds finish the year 16-7, falling two wins shy of advancing to the state semifinals for a third consecutive season.
“I’m happy about this year,” said Hill, whose roster featured five seniors and plenty of youth. “We weren’t even supposed to get remotely close to this far. I’m proud of these guys. We put it together at the end of the season and rallied. We won districts and got this far. I thought we were getting hot at the right time. It just came up a couple games short.”
Liberty, out of Issaquah, entered the game with a sub-.500 record at 10-14.
It really didn’t matter what the Patriots did during the regular season. They were playoff bound regardless of how many losses they suffered.
In a truly bizarre scenario, both 2A teams, which also included 1-19 Sammamish from the 3A/2A KingCo, were guaranteed postseason berths no matter what the squads’ win-loss records were.
The Patriots, who finished fourth in their district tournament, certainly proved their worth by knocking off Tumwater before advancing to the state semifinals with a 4-3 victory over North Kitsap in the following round.
Liberty led 2-0 after the first, collecting two hits and taking advantage of the T-Birds’ first error.
A triple from Torey Anderson drove in the first run. The sophomore added the Patriots’ second run of the inning after tagging up on a pop-up.
“We just didn’t respond back,” Hill said. “We hurt ourselves in the beginning and just didn’t get it going.”
Back-to-back errors by Tumwater in the third helped Anderson score a second time. It was all the offense Liberty would need.
Half of Tumwater’s six hits came in the final two innings, but the four errors the T-Birds registered loomed large throughout the game.
Keenan Milligan’s double with one out in the sixth appeared to give Tumwater some life, but the junior remained stationary as Steffens got the next batter, Riley Owen, to fly out to left field.
Tanner Angel took first after being hit by a pitch, giving the T-Birds one of their few opportunities to score. Steffens ended the threat by striking out Sam Jones on three pitches.
Noah Sirkel opened the seventh for Tumwater with a single before consecutive flyouts put the T-Birds one out away from seeing their season end. Noah Andrews collected his second single of the game to bring the tying run to the plate.
Patriots reliever Sam Harrington, however, closed out the game by striking out Austin Pullar.
Tumwater loses a senior class — which includes Owen (who got the start against Liberty), Angel, Elijah Hill, Bradley Kramer and Joey Jones — that contributed to the most successful three-year run in program history.
The T-Birds finished second in state in 2013 and third last year. It marks the only time Tumwater has had consecutive state playoff appearances.
“The seniors were the glue,” Hill said. “We set our lineup around them. They were the core of it. We needed leadership and they provided it this season. I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish this year.”