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Johnson pitches, bats St. Mary's into baseball state semifinals

Sean Gallagher’s strategy paid off for St. Mary’s in the Class 3A state baseball quarterfinals Friday at Meese Field.

The veteran St. Mary’s coach limited pitching ace Joe Johnson to one inning of relief in the Crusaders’ first-round playoff victory against Irrigon on Wednesday so he would be ready to face perennial power Santiam Christian in the quarterfinals.

Johnson was flawless on the mound and also fueled the St. Mary’s offense with three RBIs as the Crusaders rolled to an 8-0 victory over the Eagles.

St. Mary’s (24-4), which was eliminated in the state playoffs the previous two seasons by Santiam Christian, will play at top-seeded and defending state champion Stanfield/Echo in the semifinals on Tuesday.

Johnson (8-3) allowed just one hit — a bad hop infield single to Eagles catcher Grant Carley, the West Valley League player of the year, in the first inning — and struck out 11 with no walks in an 84-pitch six-inning performance.

“My mindset was to hit my spots,” said the senior lefthander. “I had a lot of adrenaline and energy. I was attacking with the fastball.”

Johnson dominated Santiam Christian — never allowing a runner into scoring position. Johnson would have retired the Eagles, who defeated the Crusaders 4-2 in the 2016 semifinals, in order from the second to sixth inning except for Steven Kontra reaching base on a wild pitch after striking out in the fourth.

“Johnson had fire in his eyes after pitching one inning against Irrigon,” said Gallagher. “Joe was rested and ready for this game. The key was his first-pitch strikes and he had a great tempo.”

The Crusaders’ maturity and composure showed against Santiam Christian, a team that graduated 12 seniors off last year’s state finalist squad.

While Johnson cut through the Eagles’ lineup effectively and the Crusader defense played errorless ball, Santiam Christian committed three errors and its four pitchers combined for five walks, two hit batters and two balks.

“We had trouble throwing strikes,” said Santiam Christian 29th-year coach Matt Nosack. “The little things added up against us. They’re an experienced group and it shows.”

Travis Danielson swung an impressive bat from the leadoff spot in the order for St. Mary’s. The senior third baseman opened the game with a towering fly ball that centerfielder Conrad Carter caught against the fence. Danielson singled in his next two at-bats, including knocking in the Crusaders’ first run, got hit by a pitch and scored three runs.

“I was waiting and reacting for whatever came into the zone,” said Danielson. “I went for the first good pitch and tried to put my best swing on the ball.”

St. Mary’s broke through with three runs in the third inning.

JD Arevalos opened with a walk, was sacrificed to second and moved to third on a balk by starter Ryan Hall.

With a 1-1 count on Danielson, Nosack went to the bullpen and brought in Sam Barton. Danielson greeted Barton with a hard single between third and shortstop that scored Arevalos with what proved to be the winning run.

Danielson stole second and was called safe at third when shortstop Patrick Otis tried to throw him out on Brandon Letendre’s grounder. Danielson scored on Johnson’s ground out and Letendre moved to second. Letendre stole third and scored the final run of the inning on the play when Carley’s throw went into left field.

“We exploit teams by forcing them to play the entire field,” said Gallagher. “When something breaks down, that’s when we get rolling. We’re always testing the defense and eventually we break through.”

Danielson singled to open the fifth inning and scored on Johnson’s double to increase the Crusaders’ lead to 4-0.

In the sixth, St. Mary’s sent 10 batters to the plate and scored four runs on two hits, two walks, two hit batters and one error.

After the game, Gallagher admitted it was satisfying in turning the table on the Crusaders’ recent nemesis: “We have a history with Santiam Christian. It’s become a rivalry and this was an especially sweet victory.”

Santiam Christian;000;000;0;—;0;2;3

St. Mary’s;003;014;x;—;8;7;0

Hall, Barton (3), Riley (6), Gilbert (6) and Carley; Johnson, Danielson (7) and Arevalos. W — Johnson (8-3). L — Hall. 2B — SM: Pruhliere, Johnson

Reach reporter Frank Silow at fsilow@mailtribune.com

St. Mary's Brandon Letendre takes a swing against Santiam Christian during the Class 3A state quarterfinals at St. Mary's High on Friday. [ANDY ATKINSON/FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]
St. Mary's Aliiloa Kaeo-Wailehua steals third base against Santiam Christian during the Class 3A state quarterfinals at St. Mary's High on Friday. [ANDY ATKINSON/FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]