RICHLAND -- The first time AJ Hoskins took the field in a playoff game for the Hanford baseball team, he was a big hit.
A real big hit.
Then just a sophomore, batting at the tail end of the lineup despite hitting .510 during the regular season, the upstart shortstop stepped to the plate with his team holding on by a run in the sixth inning against Mt. Spokane after the Wildcats scored four runs in the top of the frame.
The Falcons loaded the bases, and then Hoskins deposited a pitch over the fence at Waits Field. His first home run in a Hanford uniform was a game-sealing grand slam in the playoffs, locking up the team’s third consecutive trip to state.
“When I hit it, it felt amazing,” Hoskins recalled Friday evening. “I was playing with seniors — the big boys — and to hit a grand slam as a sophomore, it felt good. I could hang with the big guys.”
Now, two years later, the Falcons have another tough playoff test — taking on CBBN rival Kamiakin at 1 p.m. today at Hanford in a winner-take-all grudge match. And they will count heavily on Hoskins, their go-to guy these last three years.
“What he brings is a love of the game,” Hanford coach Tom DeWitz said. “He’s steady, even-keeled.”
Hoskins is not flashy — DeWitz said his best attribute is he gets better as the season grinds along — but you would be hard pressed to find a better fit for the Falcons at short.
He has been a first-team all-league selection the last two seasons after earning second-team honors as a sophomore. He also has been a two-time second-team all-area pick behind his good buddy, Kennewick shortstop Trek Stemp.
Hoskins has finished the regular season hitting at or near .500 all three seasons, with a career average of .474, 82 hits, 21 doubles, a triple and six home runs. He has driven in 57 runs, scored 61 and, for the last two seasons, has on-base and slugging percentages well over .500.
This year, he is hitting in a lineup that finished the regular season averaging better than .400, and he is joined on the all-league first team by fellow Falcons Colin Serkowski (first base, outstanding pitcher), Ryan Neal (second base), Trevor Jones (outfield) and Bear Braich (relief pitcher).
Hoskins plans to follow a pipeline of local players to Washington State. Stemp and Southridge’s Matt Mendenhall already have signed with the Cougars, Suns twins Bryce and Ty Jackson went last season, and former Richland star Brett Jacobs will be a redshirt junior next season. Hoskins will go as a preferred walk-on, passing up scholarship offers from smaller schools to take a shot at Pac-12 ball.
“I was thinking about signing with a (community college), but (WSU coach Donnie) Marbut talked to me, and that made me think I had a shot,” Hoskins said. “I’ve been wanting to play for WSU, and if I don’t go, it will be, ‘What if?’ I’ll never know.”
What Hoskins does know is he and his teammates must play their best game to get by a Kamiakin team that already has played four playoff games in 10 days. The Falcons have played just one.
“Tomorrow’s a big game, and we don’t want to lose,” he said. “We don’t want to say our goodbyes.”
While the Braves and Falcons play a loser-out game, Kennewick will be at Mt. Spokane at noon in the sub-regional championship, both already having earned berths into next weekend’s state games at Yakima’s County Stadium.
4A: Richland is at home at 1 p.m. today to take on Gonzaga Prep in the Eastern Washington 4A sub-regional, while Ferris and Mead are playing a loser-out game in Spokane.
The Bombers have secured a sixth consecutive state berth and will play next weekend at Spokane’s Avista Stadium.
SCAC: Bomber Field also will host the SCAC district title game at 7 p.m. today between Kiona-Benton and Naches Valley.
The Richland field originally was the site of all four SCAC games today, but the two loser-out games at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., as well as the seeding game for third-fourth, have been moved to Columbia Basin College because the Bombers needed their own field.