Another first: Kitsap in playoffs

Saints’ players jump into Rollis Talalemotu’s arms celebrating a win last year against Oregon. The Saints are 1-7 this season.  - Photo by Jesse Beals/file photo 2006
Saints’ players jump into Rollis Talalemotu’s arms celebrating a win last year against Oregon. The Saints are 1-7 this season.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals/file photo 2006

The crowd’s last look at the regular-season Kitsap BlueJackets isn’t one fans should expect as the postseason gets underway.

The BlueJackets, wrapping up the regular schedule with a 32-19 (24-18 in West Coast Collegiate Baseball League play) record, trailed Spokane 8-1 at home Sunday.

So in the ninth, with the game having no impact on standings after Kitsap clinched the No. 2 berth out of the WCCBL West Division with a 4-1 win against the RiverHawks Friday, Kitsap coach Matt Acker tried a new-look lineup late in the game.

Down seven runs, the Kitsap pitching staff took the field, with Matt Rossman at shortstop, Sean Greer in center field, Joe Hagen pinch hitting, Aaron Bronson at first, Barrett Kanyer in right field, Christian School at the hot corner, Kyle Nunley DH’ing and James Douglas at second. Dan Neil, of Graham-Kapowsin, caught the game for it’s entirety to give main catcher Lawson Hipps a day off. Brad Woodfield, Mark Fraser and Brent Miller pitched the game.

“They had a blast,” Acker said of the mass switch. “The hitters were excited. The pitchers were excited. The crowd was excited. Everybody was all pumped up.”

And while Kitsap lost, excitement still filled the field in anticipation of Monday’s playoff opener with West Division regular-season champs Corvallis (Ore.), at Kitsap Fairgrounds Ballfields. Results of that game were unavailable at press time.

“It’s a good feeling,” Acker said of making the WCCBL postseason for the first time in the team’s three years. “Anytime you set goals for yourself, goals for your program in general, and you achieve them, it’s definitely a good thing.”

Joey Lind cemented his status as the WCCBL’s RBI leader, driving in Doug Buser for the Jackets’ only run Sunday. Woodfield gave up two runs in three innings, followed by Fraser giving up six (three earned). Miller finished the game with three scoreless innings.

But part of the reason for that loss was the fact that everyone on the BlueJackets roster is looking forward to the playoffs.

“It’s not a bad position to be in,” Acker said of being the No. 2 team. “I’m not upset with it at all. I like it.”

In fact, it may be more advantageous to Kitsap to be the division’s runner-up. After Monday’s game, the teams took a day off before traveling back to Corvallis. The Knights are coming off a road trip at Bend (Ore.) and will have to travel to Kitsap for the opener, approximately a 260-mile trip one way.

And while the Knights swept Kitsap this season, taking three one-run games for the Jackets in July and before hosting and sweeping Kitsap again prior to the Spokane series, Acker said it won’t be hard to head into the series with a clean-slate mentality.

“The season part you get over with pretty easily,” he said. “Now, everyone is 0-0. It’s a pretty simple thing to get out of your head. They may have a mental advantage, but we’re ripe for knocking them off too.”

Kitsap has long considered Corvallis, formerly Aloha (Ore.), a top rival, given that the Knights were the most successful program to join the league upon its formation in 2005. That fire was fueled though by everything from strategic differences to last year’s bat incident. The teams also are at polar opposites in terms of where they come from.

“I think it’s pretty fitting we’re the team playing ’em,” Acker said. “Of all the teams, we’re about as blue-collar as it gets. They’re about as white-collar as it gets.”

But the main reason Kitsap wants to top Corvallis is the same reason everyone wants to, he said.

“I think they have a rivalry with pretty much everybody. They are the Yankees of our league,” Acker said. “I don’t know if they necessarily feel the same way. We definitely feel it.”

With the games that the Jackets have lost to the Knights being so close, Acker said he knows his squad can rise up.

“We’ve got nothing to lose as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We know we’re capable of beating them. They are a good team. We have to do the little stuff to beat them.”

That’s partly what held them back in the most recent sweep, as Acker said his team was trying too hard to not only avenge the previous losses, but to take control of first place.

“They pressed a little bit because they wanted to be in first,” he said. “You can’t do that. You’re not gonna be successful.”

But regardless of the regular season, Acker reiterated that now, it’s a whole new ball game.

“Who cares what you did in the regular season,” he said. “We’re the ones that are gonna send you home.”

While it is the BlueJackets’ first postseason in the WCCBL, the players all have some sort of playoff experience, either through high school ball, college ball or in various other leagues growing up.

“A lot of kids have been in this position,” Acker said. “They know what to do, how to take care of business. I’ve been in it before as a coach. I think everybody will be fine, go out and do what they’re capable of doing.”

Since the Jackets began, Acker said the team has repeatedly heard about how they shouldn’t expect to compete for many seasons. According to other teams in the league, that’s just the way it is, Acker said. But now, with the Jackets and second-year Moses Lake (a WCCBL-best 29-13) are changing that perception.

“Moses Lake and us have both been hearing it,” Acker said. “They’ve been telling us basically that we wouldn’t be very good. Now, we’re two of the final four teams. That misconception should be gone now.”

If the Jackets win, then they’ll travel to Corvallis Wednesday, needing one more win in the best-of-three series.

“If we were to lose, we’ve been in tough situations before,” Acker said.

With so many factors, from strong starting efforts out of Kyle Howe, Nunley, Bronson and Rossman, a great bullpen effort this season and solid offense all around, Acker reflected briefly on the keys to the regular season.

“No question, (Jamie) Nilsen has been such a mainstay for us at shortstop,” he said. “He’s been clutch for us. He’s a good dynamic player. (Brandon) Kuykendall had an unbelievable season. So has Joey Lind. Buser in center field has been phenomenal also. The pitching staff has been incredible.

“But I don’t think we could have done anything without Lawson Hipps. He’s been enormous.”

Hipps, the team’s catcher, was expected to share time behind the plate with Jake Owens. But when a nagging hammy injury got the best of Owens, Hipps had to take over full time.

Often, that can wear on a catcher both on the field and at the plate. But in 41 games, 35 starts, Hipps is hitting .286, third on the team, with 15 RBI, drawing 18 walks to just 13 strikeouts. Defensively, he’s sporting a fielding percentage of .989, very solid for a catcher.

“On top of that, he’s been hitting well,” Acker said. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”

The teams play Wednesday and Thursday if necessary before one will move on to the WCCBL Championship Series, slated to begin Saturday.

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