Four years of careful planning came down to one reckless moment as the Rainier High School baseball team clinched the 2B Pacific League championship with a doubleheader sweep of Life Christian Academy on Tuesday evening at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey.
The Mountaineers won the first game, 9-3, behind the five-hit complete game of left-hander Dalton Rush and were cruising with a 6-2 lead in the second game behind another southpaw, Keaton Carlson, until the fifth inning.
Touched up for five hits and victimized by two errors behind him, Carlson gave up six runs in the fifth. But the Rainier pitcher wasn’t overly concerned about Life Christian’s rally.
“We’re getting to the point as a team where we know we’re going to make mistakes,” Carlson said. “But we just flush them and move on.”
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The Mountaineers tied it with two runs in the bottom of the inning, leaving the score tied at 8-8 when Carlson came to bat with one out in the bottom of the sixth.
Looking for a fastball, Carlson got one on a 2-0 count, driving it over the head of Eagles center fielder Michael McKay. Carlson raced around the bases and was so intent on scoring that he took a risk many pitchers wouldn’t, diving headfirst across home plate to complete an inside-the-park home run.
“You got to do what you got to do,” he said afterward.
Minutes later, Carlson worked a hitless seventh through the heart of the Eagles’ batting order to finish off the title-clinching victory.
“After the home run, I had a lot of adrenaline, a lot of momentum in the top of the seventh,” he said.
Coach Wayne Kennedy, who is in his fourth season, has built Rainier from a team with one win in 2013 and two wins in 2014 into a team with a 16-3 overall record and going undefeated (11-0) in the 2B Pacific League.
Kennedy says his team likes to keep its foot firmly on the gas pedal.
“Our kids never slow down,” he said. “They never realize the intensity of the moment.”
In the second game, Rainier picked up the pace after seeing a tendency in Eagles pitcher Xaviar Jonas’ approach to holding runners on base.
After falling behind, 1-0, on a Conner Kuykendall single that drove in Nate Jensen for Life Christian (8-7, 6-3 2B Pacific), the Mountaineers took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the first when Ricky Cruse and River Reise stole home during pickoff attempts.
A four-run second inning seemed to put Rainier in control until the six-run rally by the Eagles in the fifth, which was fueled by a two-run double by Tom Cannell.
In the bottom of the inning, Rainier tied the game with RBIs by Zach Lofgren and Hunter Coleman. The stage was now set for Carlson’s heroics.
In the first game, Rush had some minor struggles early but allowed only two Life Christian singles across the final five innings to record the win, striking out six.
River Reise doubled over the left fielder’s head to give Rainier a 1-0 first inning lead, but Life Christian bounced back with two runs in the top of the second thanks to a double by Wyatt Dunlap and a single by Stephen Woomer.
Then, the Mountaineers took the lead back with three runs in the bottom of the second on RBI singles from Johnny Lofgren, Cole Reise and Cruse and never trailed again.
The 2B Pacific League title gives Rainier a top seed and a home game in the first round of the District 4 tournament.
The district tournament is something Kennedy is looking forward to thanks to Rush, Carlson and the rest of his pitching staff.
“We go five pitchers deep. That’s important,” Kennedy said. “We’re excited. We’ve got a chance to do some good things over the next few weeks.”
Life Christian 0 2 0 0 1 0 0 – 3 5 2
Rainier 1 3 0 1 3 1 X – 9 10 1
WP – Dalton Rush (CG, 5H, 6K). LP – Conner Kuykendall. LC – Michael McKay 2-3 (R, SB), Wyatt Dunlap 1-4 (2B, SB). R – Ricky Cruse 2-4 (2B, SB, RBI), River Reise 1-3 (2B, 2SB, R, RBI), Hunter Coleman 2-4 (RBI), Izzy Elwell 2-4 (2B, 2R, RBI), Cole Reise 1-2 (R, 2RBI)
Life Christian 1 1 0 0 6 0 0 – 8 10 3
Rainier 2 4 0 0 2 1 X - 9 9 3
WP – Keaton Carlson (CG, 6K) LP – Tom Cannell. LC – Nate Jensen 1-3 (2R, 2B, RBI), Kuykendall 2-4 (R, 2RBI), Cannell 1-4 (2B, R, 2RBI). R – Carlson 2-4 (2R, HR, 2SB, 2RBI), Levi Reise 2-4.