While it is not written in stone, the rule of thumb to playing the Hanford baseball team is to try to minimize the damage from Isaac Benard, and take your chances with the rest of the lineup.
The Kennewick Lions did that Tuesday night ... barely, and because of that they got to celebrate in style.
Vince Gonzalez’s bunt brought home the winning run in the ninth inning of the first game, and Clayten Ayres got it done at the plate and on the mound in the second to lead the Lions to a 4-3, 9-1 sweep of the Falcons in the regular-season finale for both teams at Roy Johnson Field.
The Lions, who already had the Mid-Columbia Conference title sewn up before the first game ended, head into the playoffs riding high at 17-3 overall, including a 13-1 run through the MCC.
“It’s a good start,” Gonzalez said of the league title. “But none of this matters unless we do good in the playoffs.”
And those playoffs start next Tuesday at home for Kennewick against the No. 4 team from the Greater Spokane League, likely to be Rogers (3-13).
Hanford (11-9, 8-6), meanwhile, will take the No. 3 seed to Spokane to face the GSL No. 2, most likely University (8-8).
Kennewick’s winning rally started with a leadoff error and a walk. No. 9 hitter Kaden Julian bunted the runners up, and Steven Sordahl at the top of the order got the intentional pass. That brought up Gonzalez, who already had two hits in the game.
Lions coach A.J. Marquardt, who initially planned to squeeze in the eighth when Kennewick loaded the bases with no outs but came away empty, didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger this time.
“Initially it was supposed to be a squeeze, but the runner didn’t run,” Gonzalez said. “But I still got a good bunt down, so I’ll take the hit.”
Indeed, courtesy runner Eric Mann didn’t break with the pitch, but still came charging hard down the line. Hanford pitcher Nathanel Mitchell needed to make a clean grab of the ball to have a chance at the plate, and a slight bobble took that away.
Just getting to the ninth was a big haul for Hanford, one that needed the last big of escape magic from starter Jalen DeVine.
Devine was tagged for three runs in the first inning, then settled in for an eight-inning performance that included four hits and no runs over the final seven innings.
His counterpart, Jarrod Molnaa, was on top of his game through six, setting down 12 of 13 batters after Benard’s RBI single in the second. But a two-out error kept the seventh alive, and Benard crushed a ball high off the fence in right-center for a tying, two-run double.
“A few feet to the right and that’s a home run,” said Hanford coach Tom DeWitz. “It’s the biggest season (for a Hanford hitter) since I’ve been here. He’s hit the most home runs (nine) since (Jason) Repko was at Hanford (1999). He’s swinging it solid all the way around.”
Indeed, Benard squared up on everything he hit, going 4-for-6 with three RBIs. He tripled and scored Hanford’s only run in the second game.
That game was dominated by the pitching of Ayres — six innings, four hits, one run and six strikeouts — and a five-spot for the Lions in the third inning.
Dylan Wilbert and Alex Storaci each had RBI singles in the frame, but a pair of fielding errors and a passed ball proved lethal to the Falcons.
Storaci was indicative of the Lions’ ability to hit up and down the lineup. He was 2-for-3 from the seven hole as Kennewick went 5-for-9 at the back of the order.
“The whole lineup has produced this year,” Marquardt said. “And I can’t give enough credit to our pitching staff.”
Colton Plew picked up the save with a 1-2-3 seventh, and freshman Matt Driver delivered two-big shutout innings in the eighth and ninth to get the win in Game 1.
Ayres also had an RBI double in the first inning and went 3-for-7 in the middle of the order.
And while Marquardt’s full attention is turning to the playoffs, he said his team should stop to smell a few roses along the way.
“This is a pretty good feeling,” he said of MCC title. “When you consider this league, it means a lot.”
Hanford 010 000 200 — 3 6 3
Kennewick 300 000 001 — 4 8 2
Jalen DeVine and Nathanel Mitchell (9) and Aaron Enderlin; Jarrod Molnaa, Matt Driver (8) and Dylan Wilbert. Highlights—DeVine (H) 8IP-8H-3R-1BB-5K, Isaac Benard (H) 2x3, 2B, 3 RBI; Zack Hoskins (H) 2x4; Enderlin (H) 1x4, 2R; Molnaa (K) 7IP-5H-1ER-3BB-8K, Vince Gonzalez (K) 2x4, RBI; JJ Hancock (K) 2x4; Clayten Ayres (K) 2x4, RBI.
Hanford 000 001 0 — 1 4 4
Kennewick 105 003 x — 9 10 1
Jacob Anderson, Sawyer Henry (4) and Enderlin, Austin Taylor (4); Clayten Ayres, Colton Plew (7) and Hancock. Highlights—Benard (H) 2x3, 3B, R; Cody Kowalski (H) 2x3; Steven Sordahl (K) 2x4, 2R, SB; Ayres (K) 6IP-4H-1R-1BB-6K, RBI 2B; Alex Storaci (K) 2x3, RBI; Kaden Julian (K) 2x3.