Perhaps now those bad state memories can be exorcised from the Kennewick Lions psyche.
Winning heals all wounds.
JJ Hancock’s fourth-inning homer opened up the offense for Kennewick, and Clayten Ayres and Matt Driver combined to shut down Southridge’s hitting as the Lions took a 5-1 win off the Suns in the Class 3A state quarterfinals Saturday at Pasco High.
“It feels amazing. We’re finally back into it,” said Hancock, one of several Kennewick players who experienced heartbreak and a 2-0 loss to Kamiakin last season in this same game. “We said it from Day 1 after the Kamiakin game, we’re going to get back and win this game.”
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They did, and now the Lions (21-3) are headed to the state semifinals for the first time since winning it all in 2008. They open at Gesa Stadium in Pasco with Auburn Mountainview at 1 p.m. Friday.
On the flip side are the Suns (17-8), who probably will be asking “what if” for a long time to come after letting a few too many chances get away and having a few too many breaks go against them.
“We had opportunities and, you know, they made the plays and we didn’t,” Southridge coach Tim Sanders said. “We didn’t hit it and they did. But we had the right people in the right spots.”
Hancock’s homer with one out in the fourth broke a scoreless tie between Ayres and Southridge starter Jake Ebberts. The knock seemed to loosen up the Lions dugout, and it certainly put a smile on Hancock’s face.
“It felt amazing,” he said. “I knew it was out. It felt amazing coming off the barrel. I was so pumped.
“I’ve been struggling this year, and to hit it right there in this game was perfect.”
Larry Dewitt added a sacrifice fly later in the inning for a 2-0 lead before the Suns got on the board in the fifth. But after loading the bases with no out, a 6-4-3 double play proved a costly way to plate a run. And then Kennewick shortstop Vince Gonzalez ranged deep in the hole and fired a strike to first for the third out.
It was one of several key defensive plays made by the Lions, who turned double plays in the fifth and sixth innings. Gonzalez also threw a runner out at home in the fourth.
“Every out toward the end of the game was important,” Gonzalez said.
One out that was important earlier in the game came in the fourth inning and killed Southridge’s chance to get out front.
Connor Morfin and Brent Schafer led off with singles and moved up on Addison Spivey’s bunt. Morfin was gunned down at home by Gonzalez on his brother Austin Morfin’s grounder to short for the second out. No. 9 hitter Kory Miller then sent a bullet to the hole on the right side that had RBI single written all over it ... until it slammed into the base runner and deflected to Dewitt for the easy out.
“Fortunate breaks,” Kennewick coach AJ Marquardt said. “We had some funny stuff go in our favor.”
But, he added, pitching and defense has been there all season.
Ayres was solid through four innings, giving up just three hits. But he got a cramp fielding a bunt to open the fifth and was gone one batter later as Driver, a freshman, came on in relief.
He gave up a single, then settled in for three big-time innings and the save.
Kennewick tacked on three runs in the sixth with RBI singles by Alex Storaci and Colton Plew.
Both teams had to win first-round games to reach the quarterfinal, but few doubted it would be anything but a matchup of neighborhood rivals.
“We knew coming it would come down to us and Southridge,” Gonzalez said. “Tri-Cities has the best baseball.”
Southridge 5, Columbia River 4: The Suns were headed to an easy victory behind Conner O’Neil’s six innings of four-hit ball with eight strikeouts.
But one swing of the bat by power-hitting Michael McCann off Ebberts, making a rare relief appearance, sent a three-run bomb high over the right-field fence, knotting the game at 4-all.
Trey Walker followed with his second double of the day to give the Chieftens (16-9) two cracks with the go-ahead run at second, but closer Justin Kreutz came on and got a fly to right and a liner to left that forced Trenton Nett to make a diving catch.
And the winning run didn’t come easy for the Suns, starting with Jared Newbry’s single to right on an 0-2 pitch to start the rally. Cole Henderson then fouled off two bunts before laying down a perfect sacrifice on a 1-2 count. Intentional passes to O’Neil and Grant Lathim followed before Connor Morfin stepped to the plate drilled the first pitch he saw over a drawn-in infield.
It was Morfin’s second big hit of the game, following a two-out, two-run single in the third.
Kennewick 5, Seattle Prep 1: The Lions jumped on the Panthers (18-7) with a four-run first inning, powered by an RBI triple from Hancock and a two-out, two-run double from Storaci.
Dewitt added an RBI single in the third, and that was more than enough to back Jarrod Molnaa and his three-hitter. He breezed through the first three frames before giving up a hit, and his own two-base error on a pickoff attempt led to Prep’s only run.
Southridge 000 010 0 — 1 4 2
Kennewick 000 203 x — 5 8 1
Jake Ebberts, Justin Kreutz (6), Jordan Dawson (6) and Austin Morfin; Clayten Ayres, Matt Driver (5) and Dylan Wilbert. Highlights—Conner O’Neil (SR) 1x1, 2 BB, HBP; Ayres (K) 4IP-3H-0ER-3BB-2K, 2x3, 2R; Driver (K) 3IP-1H-0R-3BB-1K; JJ Hancock (K) solo HR; Alex Storaci (K) 2x3, RBI.
Columbia River 100 000 3 — 4 8 1
Southridge 102 001 1 — 5 10 1
One out when winning run scored
Bryant Clark, Seth Rayburn (5) and Brady Benson; Conner O’Neil, Jake Ebberts (7), Justin Kreutz (7) and Austin Morfin. Highlights—Michael McCann (CR) 3-R HR; Trey Walker (CR) 2 2B, R; O’Neil (SR) 6IP-4H-0ER-2BB-7K, 1x3, RBI; Jared Newbry (SR) 2x3, 2R, SB; Grant Lathim (SR) 2B; Connor Morfin (SR) 2x4, 3 RBI; Brent Schafer (SR) 2x2, R.
Seattle Prep 000 100 0 — 1 3 1
Kennewick 401 000 x — 5 11 1
Jack Roger, Nate Richards (3) and Max Winkelhake; Jarrod Molnaa and Dylan Wilbert. Highlights—Nelson Taylor (SP) 2x3, 2B, RBI; Molnaa (K) 7IP-3H-1R-0ER-2BB-4K; Vince Gonzalez (K) 2x4, 2B, R; JJ Hancock (K) 3B, RBI; Clayten Ayres (K) 2x4, RBI, 2R; Wilbert (K) 2x3, R; Alex Storaci (K) 2x4, 2B, 2 RBI; Kaden Julian (K) 2B.