WALLA WALLA — It’s a gloomy June evening, not exactly baseball weather as dark clouds threatening to open up on an already damp Borleske Stadium.
Arty Reyes is digging in on the pitcher’s mound, trying to get comfortable in the early innings with a runner on and one out. The batter goes after a ball in the dirt, and Jarrod Turner bounces out of his stance to show the umpire strike three clean in his catcher’s glove.
Another strikeout, and Reyes, Turner and company head to the dugout, still looking at zeros on the old fashioned wood scoreboard behind left field.
It’s a few innings later, and now Turner is chugging down the first-base line, on his way to beating out a grounder to short. An error, a bunt hit and a sacrifice fly plate one run, and then Spencer O’Neil steps into the batter’s box.
The big lefty puts a charge in a ball headed to right field, but just misses getting enough to reach the fence.
Reyes, Turner, O’Neil. Marc Garza playing off the bag at first, Chance Kopacz in the lineup as a DH, Tyler Roberts in the dugout waiting for his next turn in the rotation.
Could be an all-star game of Mid-Columbia standouts. Instead, it’s just another day at the park for the Walla Walla Sweets.
Walla Walla’s entry into the West Coast League, a summer collegiate wood bat league, is filled with Mid-Columbia talent, in particular from the Tri-Cities.
Along with Turner (Richland), Reyes (Warden and Columbia Basin College), O’Neil and Roberts (both Southridge), former Bombers star Brett Jacobs is finishing up classes at Washington State before coming back to the Sweets for the summer.
Kopacz (Hermiston) and Garza (Othello) make it seven Mid-Columbia players, and that doesn’t count two more players from Walla Walla Community College.
“I like it,” said Turner, who just finished his freshman season at WWCC. “It’s fun to see the other guys, and I like the experience.”
The experience is invaluable for college players, both to keep their game sharp during the summer but also get a taste of what life is like in the minor leagues.
“It’s good for the travel, playing every day, going on the road, staying in hotels,” said O’Neil, who on Tuesday was named the WCL co-player of the week after hitting .455 (5-for-11) with a double, homer and five RBIs in the first three games. “Competitively, it’s really great. You learn a lot from the coaches. I’ve already learned a lot from (coach J.C.) Biagi in three days.”
Reyes became CBC’s top thrower this spring, and he gives part of the credit to his summer in Alaska last year pitching for the Goldpanners of Fairbanks, facing four-year college talent before heading back to the community college level.
“If I have the talent to pitch against Division I guys, I can pitch against these guys,” said Reyes, who isn’t sure yet where he will be playing next fall after finishing up at CBC.
O’Neil found out the value of summer ball last season when, straight out of high school, he played for the WCL’s Cowlitz Black Bears in Longview and was named the WCL All-Star Game MVP.
The outfielder’s career at the University of Oregon never got started after he was injured in an onfield collision during fall ball, separating two ribs.
Rather than stay in Eugene, he came back home to rehab and enrolled at CBC. His future after this summer still is up in the air, but for now he’s excited just to be back in a uniform.
“It’s great to get back on the field,” he said. “I’m excited.”
Roberts is happy to be back in the Northwest after spending a year at NAIA Campbellsville in Kentucky, with its 70-degree Decembers and tornado warnings. He will transfer to Central Washington for his senior season, hoping to get some playing time in the field as well as on the mound.
Jacobs, who redshirted at WSU this season, played in the Sweets’ opener and is expected to rejoin the team when it returns from a six-game road trip that starts Sunday.
The team also reserved a spot for the return of Andrew Mendenhall, but the former Southridge star is still busy as Oregon goes deeper into postseason play, and he is expected to stay in Eugene to rest up and take a few summer classes.
But the daily grind is exactly what Roberts is looking forward to.
“You’re always at the ballpark,” he said. “If you lose one night, you get another chance the next day.”
Note: Walla Walla will host the WCL All-Star Game on July 24. ... Other players with Mid-Columbia ties in the WCL: Wenatchee AppleSox — Josh Rapacz, Richland/George Fox; Bryce Jackson, Southridge/Washington State; Klamath Falls Gems — Eric Yardley, Richland/Seattle U.; Bend Elks — Shawn O’Brien, Kamiakin/Saint Mary’s; Bellingham Bells — Taylor Nicholson, CBC/College of Idaho. ... High school baseball fans take note: Wenatchee High’s Dustin Driver will play for the AppleSox this summer, becoming the first to play in the WCL before his senior season in high school. Driver, a hard-throwing righty for the Panthers, is expected to be one of the top prep prospects in the Northwest next year.