Challengers Kick Off Papa’s Pizza Invitational with Win over Napa Legion, 7-0
Resplendent in their patriotically-chosen jerseys, the alternately red, white, and blue-clad Eugene Challengers celebrated the Fourth of July late yesterday evening with a convincing 7-0 victory over the Napa, Idaho Legion. The seventh and final run, which was scored in the bottom of the fifth on a hit by Challengers first baseman Jordan Thompson, triggered the mercy rule and immediately ended both the game and the first day of the Papa’s Pizza Invitational on a high note for the team.
After the game, Challengers head coach Todd Zeigler was visibly pleased, flashing the sort of smile that coaches reserve for those days when their players’ performance matches their expectations.
“There haven’t been any [other] mercy rules today, and there haven’t been a lot of runs scored today [by the other teams],” said Ziegler. He also spoke briefly about the challenge a tournament like this poses for the home team. “Playing a tournament at home is always tough. The players work it all day [running the stands] and play in it at night,” Zeigler said. “I’ve been here since six this morning.”
After a briskly-played first inning, the Challengers began to make headway in the bottom of the second thanks to some uneven play by the Legion. With two runners on base, Jordan Thompson hit a single that led to Challengers third baseman Garret Harpole being tagged out at home thanks to some quick throws by the Napa infielders.
Unfortunately for them, that nice play was followed up immediately by an overthrow that sailed over the head of the second baseman. By the time they got the ball back under control, Thompson was standing on third base and right fielder Mike Ralston had crossed home plate to score the first run of the game.
The Challengers followed that score with another in the bottom of the third thanks to a deep hit to center field by left fielder Joe Schindler, making the score 2-0 headed into the fourth. Meanwhile, the Legion’s batters struggled to hit consistently against pitcher Brett Nielsen all game, putting just five runners on base. Nielsen threw wildly at times, sailing the pitch over the catcher’s head on at least five occasions, but performed well overall, holding the Legion to an average of slightly less than four at-bats per inning and striking out five batters with no walks.
“We came out flat,” said Napa outfielder Jared Lemke, who did not play in the game. Lemke went on to stress the difficulty of his team’s recent schedule, noting that the team was now playing in its third tournament in a row. “We won the Chico tournament, and I think we came in fourth in Reno,” he said. “We only got one day to rest [before playing in the Papa’s Pizza Invitational].”
Legion pitcher Kyle Mitchell, who pitched most of the game for the Legion, reiterated Lemke’s comments. “This is my first year with the 19 and up team,” he said. “Personally, I’m used to playing one tournament a year. This [the Invitational] is our fourth so far this year.”
Fatigue was certainly the story of the game for the Napa players. Mitchell pitched reasonably well at first (“he has good movement on his fastball,” Zeigler said of him after the game), but quickly wore down as the game went on. After striking out two of the three batters he faced in the first inning, Mitchell struck out just one of the 19 at-bats he faced over the next three. In the bottom of the fourth, the last inning he pitched before being relieved by teammate Michael Villas, Mitchell allowed five of the eight batters he faced to get on base, one after hitting him with a pitch, and gave up four runs.
“I only got a short rest [4-5 days], but my arm felt fine at first,” said Mitchell. “I pitched a lot in the last game, and the more you pitch, the more days you need to rest.”
Mitchell’s sore throwing arm wasn’t the only problem for the Legion. Overthrown basemen and drops proved costly for the team, particularly in the fourth inning, and contributed directly to several of the runs scored by the Challengers. “We capitalized on their errors,” said Joe Schindler, a third-year player who did plenty to take advantage of the situation by scoring two RBIs in three at-bats.
Jordan Thompson, who batted in the first run of the game, also batted in the seventh and final mercy-rule run in the fifth inning, lending a nice feeling of symmetry to the game.
“We don’t try to go for it [the mercy rule],” said Garret Harpole, the runner who crossed the plate on that final hit by Thompson, “we just score as much as possible every inning.”
Other highlights from the game include a pair of doubles by Legion second baseman Blake Zuniga, both hit to just the right spots to elude the outfielders’ mitts, and a rather dexterous catch of a low line drive by Harpole in the top of the second.