If a kid can experience a quintessential moment to a high school baseball career, then Jesse Houser has had his.
Then a junior with the Kamiakin Braves, Houser got the call at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma last spring, taking the hill for the third-fourth game at state under extraordinary circumstances.
Thanks to injuries, a game-ending altercation the previous day and an athletic code violation the previous night, the Braves dressed nine healthy players to take on once-beaten Camas.
The history books will boil it down to a 6-4 win for the Papermakers, but those on hand marveled at the resiliency of a Braves team weathering players out of position, pitchers playing in the field and hitting, and little-used underclassmen performing like playoff veterans.
At the heart of it all was Houser.
“It was definitely crazy,” Houser recalled, adding that he and then-sophomore catcher Ty Earley talked about what they expected from themselves and their teammates.
“We didn’t want to go out there and be a joke after what had already happened to us. We wanted to play our best.”
What Houser left on the field was five-plus innings of determined pitching, striking out eight and giving up four earned runs before finally giving way after 120 pitches.
But even coach Ryan Carter’s trip to the mound didn’t go without a fight.
“I was pretty mad,” said Houser, who had just walked his fifth batter to put two on with one out. “I knew I could get out of it. I was at 120 pitches, but I wanted the ball. It was the last game of the year. Who cares if I throw 30 more pitches?”
Then, grudgingly, he added, “Maybe he did the right thing.”
And that one sentence defines Houser — maybe he did the right thing. A year later, he’s still not ready to give up the fight.
“That’s his deal,” Carter said on the eve of his Braves making their return to the state playoffs. “He goes to compete. There may be guys with more fundamental swings, whatever. But when it comes down to needing to have it, crunch time, he’s the guy.”
Kamiakin (18-7) makes its bid to return to baseball’s final four today at Yakima County Stadium, taking on Mt. Spokane (17-7) at 1 p.m. The game follows a 10 a.m. matchup between Kennewick (18-7) and Hazen (15-7), the No. 6 team from District 3/4.
The winners play at 4 p.m., with the sole survivor moving on to the semifinals next weekend at Gesa Stadium in Pasco.
The Braves no doubt will need big performances from their usual suspects — third baseman Drew Oord, second baseman Logan Jackson, center fielder Andrew Castillo, Earley behind the plate, and sophomore pitcher David Marshall. And especially Houser, who hit .500 with 11 doubles, four triples, 22 RBIs and 23 runs scored in the regular season.
He also was big-time on the mound — 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA. But Houser has been even tougher in the postseason, starting a trio of games with the season on the line.
“Last year with Garrett (Anderson, pitching at Seattle U), it was just flip the ball to him, and he was going to keep you in games. That’s huge,” Carter said. “Jesse this year has taken on that role, and I’m really glad he has. He goes out there and competes.”
He’s become a leader on the field and in the dugout, Carter said.
Houser’s success on the hill has come thanks to a pitch he has thrown for as long as he can remember, though he’s never given it a name.
“It’s kind of a splitter. It breaks like a curve ball, a slider,” he said, calling it “like a slurve.”
Whatever it is, he can throw it a couple different ways, and he can throw it for strikes.
Next year, Houser likely will be throwing it at a two-year school, opting that route over some Division III schools.
But first will come one more start — and perhaps two — in pressure-packed games. Just like he likes it.
“It’s a different feeling, your nerves going crazy,” he said. “But also the adrenaline helps out. The first time is the hardest, but after that ... I wouldn’t say you get used to it, but you handle it. You like the pressure.”
Kennewick (18-7) vs. Hazen (15-7), 10 a.m.: The Lions are back at state for the first time since winning it all in 2008, while the Highlanders also are playing their first state games since 2008. In eight state trips, Hazen has never advanced past the quarterfinals.
The Lions are likely to face senior pitcher Zac Kolterman, a Lewis-Clark State College signee who played at the Area Code Games along with Kennewick star shortstop Trek Stemp.
Certainly no one is surprised Kennewick is still playing after starting the season ranked second in the state. But the Lions have caught many by surprise with how they have won in the postseason — close, including a couple of low-scoring games.
Kennewick has given up just seven runs in five games, including back-to-back 2-0 and 3-0 wins 11 days ago.
“That’s kind of playoff baseball, pitching and defense,” said coach AJ Marquardt, who guided the Lions to that title in ’08. “We definitely been doing it well lately.”
Richland (19-5) vs. Mead (19-7), 1 p.m., Avista Stadium, Spokane: The Bombers and Panthers played nine innings on May 8, with Richland winning 6-3 on Mason Hilty’s three-run homer.
Expect Hilty, a playoff veteran, back on the hill for Richland, but Mead likely will send a different pitcher, ace lefty Nick Sagendorf, who two-hit Wenatchee in a loser-out game leading up to the first matchup with Richland.
But Ben Jacobs, whose teams have been to five straight semifinals and won two titles during that time, is more concerned with how his team is playing. And, for the most part, he likes what he is seeing.
“All the kids in the program have been to at least one final four,” Jacobs said, adding no one wants to be the team to snap the string of final fours: “Someday it will end, but these guys sure don’t want to be it.”