By Jeremy McDonald
GRANTS PASS, Ore.—It was interesting on how the series between Grants Pass and Withnell happened. Initially, the series was scheduled to be in Grants Pass before heavy smoke from nearby fires forced it up to Swede Johnson Stadium in North Eugene.
When they woke up Wednesday morning however, the Dodgers quickly found out that, with the smoke still thick in Grants Pass, the game was switched back to Grants Pass last second.
But instead of being caught off guard by the last second change, Withnell quickly adjusted at the smoke-draped Agnew-Lytle Field at Reinhart Volunteer Sports Park with Michael Soper set the pace defensively on the bump and Kaiden Doten (2-for-4, 2RBIs), Max Long (3-for-4) and Noah Ferguson (3-for-4, 1RBI) led the way offensively with the Dodgers taking the opening game 6-4.
Through the thickening smoke entering the second game, the Nuggets made it interested like they did to close out the first game with the game all knotted up at two-apiece entering the bottom of the third inning.
But for returning guys like Justin Culpepper who were on the Withnell team that lost a heartbreaker to Mid-Valley under the lights at West Albany High School to start Super Regionals in 2017 as they saw their season end the next day, they didn’t want that same end result again in the Super Regionals as Culpepper took the baseball beyond the fence into the trees behind the fence to make it a 5-2 lead following his three-run shot.
“This was all new to us playing in the smoke. None of us have ever done this before,” starts Culpepper on the situation they were in looking for a State Berth. “But before the game, OG pulled us over and was like, ‘hey, we’re all playing in this. We’re all playing in the same weather, same game, same place’. So, I think that kind of drove us, it’s another baseball game and we just got to come out and play our butts off.”
They were ready to play baseball at anytime, anyplace with Tori Doten taking home three batters later on an error to make it 6-2 entering the fourth inning.
Will DeLoretto continued to let his defense worked as they hung a zero in the fourth with Gavin Fredinburg doing the same in the fifth. Rylan Webster hit a sacrifice RBI hit and Kaiden Doten scored on a wild pitch after stealing third to make it a 8-2 advantage.
The Dodgers had to shut the door though. On the road. In the smoky conditions that they were handed.
They had to be focused to track down the ball though the smoke that hung like a thick October/November fog with Grants Pass scoring two in the sixth before Withnell shut the door on them before the Nuggets did further damage.
There were no insurance runs added as it came down to Cole Herschbach and his defense to finish the job in the top half of the seventh inning.
Nerves were there yeah as Herschbach forced a pop-out to Noah Ferguson and Rylan Webster got out number two through a dropped third strike, but Grants Pass got two quick singles to challenge Herschbach to knock them out.
“It’s a little nerve-racking when you’re one out away from qualifying for State,” said first-year Dodger Head Coach Justin Hoffman who was walking around the third baseline as the outs and the hits came in the seventh . “But at the same time in the back of my head, Cole Herschbach is on the bump and he’s been solid for us this year. I don’t know, I’m just proud of the guys after all the nerves that they were going to take care of business.”
Herschbach got a 0-1 groundball to Culpepper, who then converted it to Kaiden Doten for the last out of the inning and the game as the team celebrated the State Qualifying win Wednesday night.
“I just wanted to go out there and compete and give it my all for my team because I know they were doing the same the whole time in both games. So I went out there and pound strikes for my team and produce groundballs because they’re a good defense,” said Herschbach, who pitched the last one-and-two-thirds innings with a strikeout.
“We wanted these two, we didn’t want to go game three so we wanted to drive and play our best baseball here today so two great wins for us,” adds Culpepper.
With two days off until State, the Dodgers will open the Triple-A State at Roseburg versus a familiar opponent in the Mid-Valley Southpaws at 4pm Saturday; and knowing it’s the Southpaws sparks more of a fuel after how the league season ended.
“It helps knowing the team that we’re going to play and how much we want to beat them, I think they took two-out-of-three against us, so that just fuels the flame and makes us want to get them even more,” said Herschbach.
Photos By Jeremy McDonald