Challengers Win Three in a Row, Advance to Invitational Semifinals
After an uneven pair of games like the Eugene Challengers had on day two of the Papa’s Pizza Invitational against Toyota BBC and the Salt Lake Gulls, many teams would have continued on that downward trajectory for the rest of the tournament. Instead, the Challengers appear to have found a way to use those sub par performances on Thursday to motivate themselves, as evidenced by their 7-0 win over the Three Rivers Sandblasters on Friday and crushing back-to-back mercy rule wins on Saturday versus the Salem Post 58 Canyon Crushers (16-1) and the Humboldt County Sluggers (9-1).
“We’ve been playing much better since we had to talk,” Challengers head coach Ziegler said on Saturday, referencing a team meeting that took place after the Toyota and Salt Lake games.
Against the Sandblasters, Eugene’s batting lineup spent the first four innings steadily chipping away at Three Rivers’ defense. Brett Nielsen scored the first points for the Challengers with an RBI in the first inning, followed by an RBI by Jacob DeZarn in the second, a second RBI by Nielsen in the third, and one by Ryan Land in the fourth, making the score 4-0.
The last three runs were scored in the seventh inning on two RBIs by Garret Harpole and one by Mike Ralston. The Sandblasters went through three different pitchers to try to stop the bleeding (in order of appearance: Mike Bennett, Nick Cole, and Jason Atkins), but none of them found much success.
Meanwhile, Three Rivers’ batters were shut down completely by Zach Eyster, who pitched all seven innings for the Challengers.
“Eyster threw a gem of a game,” said general manager Derek Duman. Eyster held the Sandblasters to just 24 at-bats, striking out 13 batters and giving up just three hits and no walks.
If the Challengers’ performance against Three Rivers constituted a steady assault, then their efforts on Saturday against Salem were an all-out blitzkrieg. The scoring began in the first inning with a run scored off a hit by Garrett Harpole followed by two more off a single hit by Mike Ralston. The second inning was relatively sedate, with just one run scored off a double by Erik Long to put Eugene up 4-0, and then the floodgates opened in the bottom of the third. By the time the inning was over, the entire Challengers batting lineup had scored a combined eight runs, the Canyon Crushers were on their second pitcher, and the home team led by an insurmountable score of 12-0.
The Challengers added four more runs in the bottom of the fourth to increase their lead to 16-0. Salem finally scored a run in the fifth off a hit by center fielder Justin Gardner, making the final score 16-1. Cameron Jack, who pitched the entire game for the Challengers, struck out three batters and walked one versus twenty at-bats.
After the game, Canyon Crushers head coach J.J. Mascolo was understandably downcast.
“We’ll use that team [the Challengers] as an example,” he said as he explained what his players will learn from the defeat. “That’s where we need to strive to be at some point.” Mascolo also mentioned that the Salem team is in its first year of existence and has been battling its way through a rough inaugural season.
Canyon Crushers pitcher Zach Pelley, who relieved teammate Jonathan Strong two-thirds of the way through the third inning, also offered some praise for the Challengers. “They’re a great ball club,” he said. “They play the game the right way.” Pelley talked briefly about the difficulty of pitching relief in a blowout – “it’s hard to come in with the bases loaded” – but his comments were mostly upbeat and optimistic, particularly when it came to his team’s prospects. “The guys are starting to mesh,” he said. “We’ll be better in the future.”
Like the Canyon Crushers, the Challengers’ second opponent on Saturday, the Eureka, California-based Humboldt County Sluggers, are also a newer team, with this being just their second season of existence. But despite the similarly lopsided final score, the Sluggers proved to be a much stronger opponent than the Canyon Crushers, and at several points in the game came just a hit or two shy of rallying back into contention.
“I don’t think we came with enough effort tonight,” said Sluggers manager Eric Giacone after the game. “We got the guys on [base], we just couldn’t get the hits to get them in.” Giacone also expressed some admiration for the talent evident throughout the Challengers’ roster.
“Depth keeps pressure on your starters,” he said, noting that players tend to perform better when there’s someone equally talented behind them pushing for playing time.
After a scoreless first inning, the Challengers batted in four runs in the second, one apiece off of hits by Travis Boggs and Gage McDaniel and two off a double by Cooper Stiles. The Challengers added two more runs in the top of the fourth off of hits by Gage McDaniel and Eric Long, which the Sluggers answered in the bottom of the fourth with a run scored off of a hit by pitcher Tyler Nickell to make the score 6-1 (Nickell also pitched the entire game for the Sluggers). Eugene added three more runs in the top of the fifth, one off a deep hit to center field by Cooper Stiles and two off a double by Gage McDaniel, bringing the score to its final tally of 9-1.
Despite some decent fielding by several Humboldt players, in particular short stop Kennan Snipes and catcher Luis Bressoud, the Challengers were able to exploit a weak spot in the Sluggers’ defense between left field and center field all game long. Mike Ralston pitched the entire game for the Challengers, striking out six batters and walking two versus 26 at-bats.
Aside from Joe Schindler, whom the coaches chose to rest to keep his arm fresh for the championship rounds to follow, everyone on the Challengers’ roster got an opportunity to play on Saturday, with several players subbing in for their teammates in the batting lineup or relieving them on the field for the last few innings of a game. “This was a good team day,” Coach Ziegler said afterwards, “everyone got to play.”
Later today at 2:45, the Challengers will square off against the Northwest Star Barbers in a semifinal matchup. The two teams met earlier this season in a double header at Swede Johnson Stadium in which the Challengers prevailed in both games, 4-3 and 5-0. “We beat ‘em before, but that doesn’t matter,” Ziegler said. “We still have to play well.”
The winner of that game will advance to the championship game where they will face whoever wins the other semifinal matchup between the Springfield Titans and Three Rivers Sandblasters. The championship game is scheduled to begin at 5:00.