The way the St. Paul baseball team has performed over the past week, perhaps the Buckaroos should simply play all their games with their backs against the wall. Or maybe just begin every contest in the seventh inning.
The Bucks won their third consecutive elimination game on Monday, beating the Santiam Wolverines 2-0 at Scio High School for the first state playoff victory in program history. And much like the two league playoff wins that came last week to advance to the state tournament bracket — a 6-5 win over the Portland Christian Royals followed by a 10-5 victory against the Nestucca Bobcats on May 15 — St. Paul used late-game heroics to keep its season alive.
"We just battled," St. Paul head coach Dwayne Nowlin said. "That is such a team win right there. I'm so proud of these kids for battling. We had to win two games to get here, and nobody picked us to do that."
Headlined by starting pitchers Justin Herberger and Wyatt Lyon, the two teams were knotted in a 0-0 defensive showcase going into the final inning of play. Neither team seemed poised to give an inch until the St. Paul senior Rawley Koch led the top of the seventh with a single off Lyon that was more golf swing than baseball cut, connecting on a pitch that bounced off the artificial turf for a swooping fly ball that found empty space to land in left-center field.
Fellow senior Zach Brentano followed with a single to left field, bringing a renewed buzz to the St. Paul dugout. Following a trip to the mound by the Santiam coaching staff, Nowlin tabbed Efrain Ramirez to come in off the bench and hit for catcher Steven Coppola. The junior reserve responded with a well-placed sacrifice bunt to move Koch to third and Brentano to scoring position.
"That was a great pitching match up, but the kid I really want to talk about is Frankie (Efrain Ramirez)," Nowlin said after the game. "Comes off the bench, beautiful bunt, gets us in scoring position."
The gambit worked. A walk drawn by junior Hayden Scott to load the bags and a strikeout by junior Mitchell Curtis returned St. Paul to the top of the order with two outs. With the game on the line, senior Jaidyn Jackson dropped a single near the foul line of shallow right field, scoring Koch and Brentano for the game winning runs.
Herberger followed with a fly ball to deep center field to end the inning, but he took the mound and put the finishing touches on the game, inducing a pair of grounders and a strikeout to conclude the contest for the Bucks' second shut out of the season and a history-making win.
"First playoff victory in program history, and I'm the coach," Nowlin said with a smile on his face. "That makes me feel pretty good."
The win was the third straight in a whirlwind week of play that began with the team's back-to-back league playoff wins at Pacific University on Wednesday, May 15 to keep the season alive. Heading into the league playoffs reeling from five consecutive losses and a 2-10 stretch over the last month of the regular season, the Bucks corrected their course with their backs against the wall.
Facing a Portland Christian team that had swept them the week before, St. Paul rallied from a 5-3 deficit by scoring three runs in the top of the seventh against the Royals to win 6-5 and force a rematch against the Nestucca Bobcats in the second game of the double header.
That contest went the distance as well, with both teams going into extra innings tied at 4-4 when a timing issue with the lights caused a 45-minute delay. When the Bucks finally returned to the field, the team came out with renewed agency, putting up six runs in the top of the eighth to come away with the 10-5 win. It was a return to form for a St. Paul team that opened the season with a 6-0 record in league play and 11-3 mark in the first month.
"We have been so hurt all season," Nowlin said. "So many kids have been at home with injuries and operations and everything else. Just in the last week and a half, we actually have all of our players, and we play really well when we're healthy."
Next on the docket for St. Paul (16-13, 8-10 SD1) is a second round contest with former league rival and No. 3-ranked Kennedy Trojans (25-2, 18-0 SD2) on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in Mount Angel. The Trojans have won 21 of their past 22 games, boast the state's third best offense and defense and have the added benefit of a fresh pitching staff.
"Kennedy is a great team," Nowlin said. "They're ranked No. 3 for a reason, so we're going to go over there and give them heck the best we can."
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