West Valley’s road to the Great Northern League baseball championship was a case of mind over matter. A dose of small-ball didn’t hurt, either.
The Eagles bunted their way to a 4-3 victory Friday in the first game of a doubleheader against the visiting Clarkston Bantams, getting the title-clinching business out of the way early before winning the second game 12-2.
A big reason for the win in the opener was a pair of starters too young to worry about the magnitude. Seemingly impervious to pressure and only a freshman, Dylan Steen pitched WV to the win, striking out 10 and allowing but one hit over the final four shutout innings.
Sophomore A.J. Auckerman, 5-foot-8 when he’s at bat but playing taller at first base, made a couple critical defensive plays on errant throws. And he put down the first of three successive Eagles bunts that brought home the third and fourth runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.
“It was guys wanting to do what the situation dictates,” said coach Don O’Neal, “and the situation dictated it.”
Execution wasn’t the only reason for the win. O’Neal said the coaching staff has spent more emphasis on the mental side of baseball than the physical drills.
“This year the kids have just responded to it,” he said. “Honestly, our guys at this point don’t believe in pressure.”
Not even when the Eagles fell behind 3-0 in the third inning with two runs scoring on shortstop Hunter Wells’ error. Wells redeemed himself in the bottom of the inning with a two-run hit.
That’s how the score stood entering the bottom of the sixth.
Steen had thrown primarily fastballs, but went to his off-speed and breaking stuff to stymie the visitors.
“I was trying to keep the ball at the knees,” he said of his power start, “and he (the umpire) wouldn’t call it. So I had to get it up a bit. They hit it. That’s what happens.”
With one out in the sixth, Johnny Sage singled and Josh Foster followed with a single that bounced off pitcher Cody Compton’s leg and careened into no-man’s land.
Auckerman laid down a bunt and Clarkston’s defense imploded. No one covered first and Auckerman legged it out for a hit. With the bases loaded, Jason Lane bunted to the mound and the play at the plate was botched.
Leadoff hitter Taylor VanVleck squeezed home the winner.
“They play back a lot. They don’t think about the scenario,” Auckerman said. “They think the one and two hitters swing away. Everybody on this team can bunt.”
His favorite play came on defense in the fifth inning when Foster’s throw from third base was wide, but he somehow managed to stretch for the ball and get his toe on the bag in time for the out.
“I heard (the baserunner’s) footsteps slowing down,” Auckerman said. “He didn’t give it his all.”
WV’s only loss came against Clarkston in April. The Eagles finished league at 17-1, with second-place Clarkston at 14-4.