BlueJackets bounced

Kitsap’s Brandon Decker tags out Knight Brett Casey during a third-inning stolen base attempt in Monday’s 4-1 BlueJackets win. - Photo by Aaron Managhan
Kitsap’s Brandon Decker tags out Knight Brett Casey during a third-inning stolen base attempt in Monday’s 4-1 BlueJackets win.
— image credit: Photo by Aaron Managhan

In the biggest game in Kitsap BlueJackets history, the squad got some of its biggest performances yet, out of the players who got the team this far.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep Kitsap’s playoff dreams afloat.

Kitsap (24-18 in the regular league season) topped Corvallis (Ore.) 4-1 Monday in the BlueJackets’ playoff debut, taking a 1-0 edge in the best-of-three series to determine the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League’s West Division Championship.

But a 7-3 loss Wednesday followed by a 4-3 defeat Thursday on the road in Corvallis ended the ride for the BlueJackets, two games to one.

In Thursday’s finale, the BlueJackets had to battle back after getting down 2-0 through six innings. The top of the seventh saw Central Kitsap grad Aaron Johnson lead off with a single, moving to second on a sacrifice grounder by Port Orchard native Josh Meeker. While Johnson was out at third on a fielder’s choice, outfielder Doug Buser advanced to second a steal on the next play. Brandon Decker was able to single Buser home, advancing to second on a wild pitch. After Jamie Nilsen walked, Joey Lind, the WCCBL RBI champion, drove in Decker to knot things up at 2-2.

The very next inning, first baseman Ryan Voelkel drove a double into the gap for the Jackets to lead off the top of the eighth. Voelkel was replaced by pinch-runner Dan Neil, who then advanced to third on a Lawson Hipps sacrifice fly. Johnson then picked up an RBI, reaching on an error. Up 3-2, it seemed the Jackets were on the way to the title series. Kitsap starter Matt Rossman lasted 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs, just one earned, while walking two and striking out five.

But that’s when the big bat dropped.

After pitching a 1-2-3 seventh inning to relieve Rossman, last year’s WCCBL Pitcher of the Year, Ross Humes, stayed in to pitch the eighth. After Knight Josh Hogan got aboard via the single, it was slugger Jim Murphy’s bat that did the damage, as the league’s home run leader crushed a Humes offering beyond the fences at Goss Stadium at Coleman Field, located on Oregon State University’s campus.

Corvallis reliever Greg Peavey shut the door, although he also walked two in the top of the ninth to give Kitsap a shot before CK alum Tyler Owens struck out with those runners on first and second.

While the playoff experience held a bittersweet ending, it wasn’t all bad for the Jackets, starting with the opening win.

“It was huge,” Kitsap starter Kyle Howe said after Monday’s victory. “We needed it. I was ready for it.

“I’ve been waiting for this for three years here.”

Howe, a Poulsbo native, dominated the Knights (27-15 regular season), retiring the first 10 batters he faced en route to a near complete-game victory. Howe worked eight innings, allowing just one run on five hits while striking out four. He received a roaring ovation from the Kitsap faithful, and praise from his teammates and coaches as well.

“Howe was lights out,” Kitsap coach Matt Acker said. “I think he had something to prove. He did a great job as he has all year. And the rest of the pitchers came in and did what they needed to do.”

“It’s just so fun to play behind him,” right fielder Brandon Kuykendall said.

But in addition to Howe’s prowess on the mound, Kuykendall’s consistent bat provided the offensive edge, putting the bulk of the clout into a four-run fourth inning, with Howe returning the niceties to his teammates.

“It’s huge,” Howe said. “We got that four-run cushion. I just kept saying, ‘Give me one run.’”

After cooling off over the past week, seeing his average go from .349 to finish at .315, Kuykendall continued to come through in the clutch, blasting a three-run homer in the left-field beer garden to give Kitsap a then 4-0 lead.

“It happens in baseball,” Kuykendall said. “Sometimes you get out of your groove. It felt good to hit something. It was really good being in that slump. To come out with that kind of hit is a great feeling.”

In Wednesday’s 7-3 loss, Corvallis’ Matt Wycoff was 4-4 with four RBI. The Knights tagged starter Aaron Bronson for four runs in the first three innings before the pen took over. Jamie Nilsen was 2-4 to lead the Jackets.

After Corvallis topped Kitsap six times this season, building a 15-3 advantage over Kitsap in 18 contests since the WCCBL began three seasons ago, Acker said it was nice to wipe the slate clean for the playoff starter.

“It definitely feels good,” Acker said of the win. “They’re a quality club, a very solid organization. It’s nice to be in that 0-0 situation.”

In Monday’s game, the Knights made a number of errors they usually don’t, as all four runs were unearned thanks to one of the team’s two mishaps.

“We had a lot of opportunities as the game went on,” Acker said. “It was uncharacteristic that they had a couple errors. They’re not gonna give you very many. You just have to take ’em when you get ’em.”

Illustrating that point, the Knights committed just two errors in the final two games to Kitsap’s six.

Kuykendall’s homer was his third this season, and all have come at big times. His last was the first grand slam in Kitsap history.

“He’s a good player,” Acker said. “He’s been consistent during the season. Some guys are really good under pressure. He’s been phenomenal under pressure.”

In the opener, after Howe gave up a double to begin the ninth, reliever Travis McCracken came in and struck out the only batter he faced, while Joe Hagen gave up a walk against his lone batter after a battle in which he threw seven pitches before conceding. That gave way for Humes to step back out on the field for the Jackets, and Humes responded by nailing the door shut on the Knights. Afterward, Humes was as giddy, and goofy, as ever.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been the closer, a few months, in that pressure situation,” he said. “But it’s cool. I love the adrenaline rush. I’m just looking around, the crowd is yelling, going ‘Yeah, I rock.’”

A fan favorite, Humes said it’s easy to see how last year’s chemistry made it easy for the team to bond this season, including making it easier for him to rejoin the squad late in the year.

“Last year, it was kind of a building character year,” Humes said. “Once we did, it just took off. Guys like Doug, (Josh) Meeker, all those guys were huge out there.

“It’s good to be a BlueJacket.”

And while the team was certainly excited to celebrate, Buser said there was one more important aspect that will make the win memorable years down the road.

“I think the best part about it is still the fans, the fan support,” Buser said. “These people here came out when we were really bad the first year; last year they came out. To be able to give back, that’s the good part. It’s a really great feeling as a returning player.”

Moses Lake and Corvallis will meet for the WCCBL Championship, beginning today in Corvallis. Moses Lake will host the remaining games of the best-of-three series.

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