The opportunity was there to make a little history for the Grants Pass Nuggets baseball program but it all slipped away due to one unfortunate inning late Sunday afternoon at Harry & David Field.
Grants Pass held a 3-2 lead with six outs remaining to force a winner-take-all nightcap against the Salem-area Canyon Crushers but it simply wasn't meant to be on the final day of the American Legion AAA state tournament.
RECAP: Grants Pass gets two hits apiece from Matt Cole and Jamie Schmidt but fails to hold a late lead against the Salem-area Canyon Crushers as they wrap up a 5-0 run at the state tournament.
OF NOTE: The championship game appearance marks the first for each American Legion AAA program, with Canyon's Ty Wyatt named most valuable player and teammate Ben Johnson earning most valuable pitcher honors.
With one out in the eighth, the Crushers erupted for six runs in every way possible to secure an 8-3 comeback and the first state championship in the history of the second-year program.
In an inning that had to be seen to be believed, the Crushers completed their rally thanks to four hits, two hit batters, two walks, one wild pitch and one error against four Grants Pass pitchers.
"We just fell apart a little bit, I guess, and that was hard to see and hard to be part of," said Nuggets first baseman Anthony Martin, who also saw time in right field and on the mound in the pivotal eighth inning.
"It had to even be hard for people that were watching because we were right there," added the Crater High standout. "And if we got the first game, I was thinking we definitely have the second game because we were hitting shots right at the people all day."
Grants Pass head coach Mike Reese echoed those sentiments while also giving credit to Canyon (35-12), which also edged his team 2-1 in 12 innings on Thursday and went 5-0 during the week in Medford.
"It's a tough loss," said Reese. "It was great to get here but we wanted the big prize. We didn't get it but, again, you've got to earn those things."
"My hat's off to a very good team," he added. "I would love to play them every day, it really was fun."
Canyon advances as the Oregon representative for the eight-team Northwest Regionals, set to begin Thursday in Eugene. The host team Challengers, who placed fourth in Area 4 play behind Grants Pass, Medford and Roseburg, will also compete.
The Crushers got the benefit of stellar play throughout the tournament by designated hitter Ty Wyatt and third baseman Mason Fessler, and were stingy on the mound, especially behind the efforts of Ben Johnson and Alex Emerson.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Wyatt got the ball rolling with a two-run single off the backhanded effort of shortstop Matt Cole in the first inning and finished the tournament batting .450 (9-for-20) with nine RBIs and five extra-base hits (two home runs, three doubles). Fessler went 2-for-3 with two runs and one RBI on Sunday, improving his totals to 10-for-20 at the plate, as all but one Canyon starter got a hit in the championship final.
"We just came ready to play," said Wyatt, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "We'd already played half the teams in the tournament and we had pretty good records with them. We knew what we were going to see and we knew what we had to do to get the win against them. There were some surprises like Grants Pass. We knew they were going to be a tough team but we just came out gunning for them."
Johnson picked up his second win of the tourney thanks to the eighth-inning comeback and was named the tournament's most valuable pitcher. The right-hander exited the game in the ninth after allowing a leadoff walk to Sebastian Reynolds, but Emerson negated any hopes of a rally with a pair of strikeouts and a game-inning groundout.
Johnson allowed eight hits with only three strikeouts and two walks — one intentional — and was the recipient of some great defensive support as Grants Pass routinely came away with nothing despite some sharp swings.
"We hit the baseball probably harder today than we did in any game here," said Reese, "and we just couldn't get something to fall."
The Nuggets (37-12) received a top-notch pitching performance from Jake Herklotz to keep the Crushers quiet after their first-run exploits, and then the North Valley High graduate set the stage for his team with a double off the left field wall to open the fifth inning. Herklotz moved up on a flyout by Tyler Bennett and then scored on a wild pitch with Martin at the plate to make it 2-1.
Martin singled and stole second base to keep the momentum going for the Nuggets, but the rally died there when Johnson induced a flyout and strikeout.
"I thought that was going to be a huge inning but they did a good job and they stopped us right where we were," said Herklotz. "I knew we were going to carry on with that momentum, though, and score a few more later on."
That optimism paid off in the top of the eighth as Grants Pass scored a pair of runs to pull ahead of the Crushers, 3-2, although in a way the Nuggets aren't used to scoring.
Jamie Schmidt's bloop single over third base and an ensuing stolen base set the wheels in motion for Reese, who called for a bunt by leadoff hitter Marco Garmendia that was perfectly placed and resulted in Garmendia reaching safely and Schmidt advancing all the way home thanks to an errant throw by Fessler.
Not wanting to stop a good thing, the Nuggets earned another bunt single by Cole down the third base line and then Josh Cowell plated Garmendia with the go-ahead run behind another squeeze bunt.
"We had to move a runner and give ourselves a chance to tie the ballgame up," said Reese. "Then we felt like we had to get a lead because we hadn't had a lead. We were just trying to make baseball plays."
According to Herklotz, the small-ball tactics were a beautiful sight for the typically heavy-hitting Nuggets.
"That it kept working and we kept going back with that was a huge thing," he said. "I'm glad we did that, those are good baseball plays."
Those great feelings didn't last long for the Nuggets, however, as Herklotz finally began to tire in the eighth. The 6-4 right-hander struck Emerson out to open the frame but a Fessler single and then another shot by Wyatt just past diving third baseman Bennett gave Canyon hope.
The turning point of the game followed when Herklotz hit the outstretched hand of David Harryman, who was reacting to an inside pitch, to load the bases and then, on an 0-2 count, plunked pinch-hitter Ty Sawyer to even the score at 3-all.
"He threw the heck out of the ball for us," Reese said of Herklotz, who allowed only six hits with six strikeouts leading up to the eighth. "I knew his pitch count was getting up and he hasn't thrown that many innings this summer so I was getting a little concerned but he was throwing the ball well. Really that one hit batter changed the whole momentum of the day, but his effort was outstanding. We just couldn't slam the door after that."
Cole moved in to relieve his teammate on the mound but was greeted with an RBI single by Conner Gilham, then allowed a run to score on a wild pitch before walking Hunter Gates to load the bases again. An RBI single by Chris Burger closed Cole's outing, with Martin taking over in a bases-loaded, one-out situation.
Martin got a fielder's choice groundout to deny another run and then appeared to get out of the jam with no further damage on a comebacker by Emerson but Herklotz somehow dropped the underhanded toss to first base. After a run scored on the error, Martin walked in another run before giving way to Bennett, who struck out Wyatt to finish the disastrous eighth.
"I think we reached the time in the game where we're going to end it," said Wyatt, who is headed to play at Willamette University. "They'd been hitting us back but we said we're going to push them over here and take advantage of some of their mistakes and hit them where it hurts."
While the loss certainly did sting, it didn't take the focus off a strong season that included a second straight Area 4 title for Grants Pass and the program's first runner-up finish.
"It's always nice when you have a chance to win a state championship and that's, of course, what we were going for," said Martin. "But out of all the teams in Oregon, it was just between two teams and I was part of one of those teams and that's something that's special. Sadly it went the wrong way but it's still going to be a memory I'll always have being part of all this. We did our best."
Grants Pass Nuggets 000 010 020 — 3 8 2
Canyon Crushers 200 000 06x — 8 10 1
Herklotz, Cole (8), Martin (8), Bennett (8) and Garrison; Johnson, Emerson (9) and Gates. W — Johnson. L — Herklotz. 2B — GP: Herklotz.