LEWISTON – National title No. 19 was three measly outs away for the Lewis-Clark State baseball team.
It was a pressure-packed moment, to be sure, but how many times over the last three-plus decades have the Warriors persevered and triumphed in such situations?
And in this case, they blew it. Like a cat with a hairball, they coughed up their lead in the ninth inning and had their championship dreams put on hold.
Of course, I am referring to the events of Thursday night in the Avista NAIA World Series, when LCSC surrendered a one-run lead in the ninth against Faulkner of Alabama, which rallied for a 6-5 triumph. It was a brutal way to lose, with Warriors pitcher Henry McAree flinging a way-too-high relay throw to catcher Cooper Goldby to allow the game-winning run to scurry home.
The Eagles’ Ryan Rosa had barely touched the plate when LCSC coach Jeremiah Robbins called his players in for a huddle. Before any of the Warriors had a chance to wallow in despair, their coach had a message for them.
“He said, ‘Hey, we’re playing for a national championship tomorrow – what’s there to be down about?’ ” L-C shortstop Seaver Whalen said, recounting the postgame meeting.
It’s true that the Warriors entered Thursday’s game with a 2-for-1 shot at the championship, but when a team in that situation is forced to invoke its insurance policy, there’s no guarantee how it will respond in the winner-take-all showdown.
Consider the 2008 Series. Lee of Tennessee barged into the championship round unbeaten and with two shots at the title, and entered the ninth inning of the first game with a two-run lead over LCSC. But the Flames couldn’t hold off the Warriors, who scored three runs with two outs to forge a 7-6 victory and force a second championship game. The next night, L-C cruised to an 8-3 win and its 16th national title (and final under coach Ed Cheff).
After the first of the two losses, Lee players were clearly devastated. To be so close to a championship, only to have it pried away in heart-wrenching fashion, isn’t the easiest thing to forget – even with a do-over looming and coaches saying all the right things.
When the 2017 Warriors lost Thursday, their immediate postgame huddle seemed to set the tone perfectly. When I approached Robbins after the game, he asked, “Hey, Matt, who do you want (to interview)?” as though L-C had just lost a February game to British Columbia. Senior second baseman Gunnar Buhner went as far as saying he was “happy” he got another chance to wear the Warrior uniform and play with his teammates.
And come Friday night, Buhner and his teammates were jubilant following a 6-4 victory over Faulkner, which gave the Warriors their third consecutive NAIA crown and 19th overall.
Even if the L-C players and coaches had spent Thursday evening gnashing their teeth and kicking at the dirt, they still might have turned things around Friday and won the if-necessary title game. But I think Robbins and the Warriors provided the textbook example of how an unbeaten team should handle a championship-round loss.
It was particularly impressive how L-C performed in Friday’s ninth inning. This time, the Warriors led by two, but Faulkner again pieced together a threat, putting two men on with one out. The Eagles brought in a pinch hitter whom L-C coaches thought they could induce into a groundball. A fastball low and away did the trick, and then it was up to the infield.
Whalen gloved the bounding ball, flipped it to Buhner, who tapped second base and fired to first baseman Brock Ephan. Both outs were close, but the Warriors showed no sign of nerves as they completed the championship-clinching double play.
Or maybe the nerves just kept them on their toes.
“A wise guy by the name of Jay Buhner told us to embrace the butterflies and enjoy it,” said Whalen, mentioning the name of the former Seattle Mariner and father of LCSC’s second baseman. “Just enjoy everything with your team out there, have a ton of fun, and if you aren’t having butterflies, than you aren’t human. You should be a little nervous out there.”
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