The No. 7 ranked Neah-Kah-Nie High Pirates baseball team took a big step towards reaching the state playoffs after sweeping the Portland Christian Royals 6-5 and 5-3 Friday at Portland Christian High School.
Neah-Kah-Nie (11-1 Special District 1, 15-4 overall) is in second place in the league with six games remaining on the schedule and has nearly clinched an OSAA OnPoint Community Credit Union Class 2A/1A state playoff berth for a second straight year. The 22-team playoffs begin with first round games May 20.
The Pirates, guided by fifth-year coach Rob Herder, came from behind in both contest’s to pull out two thrilling wins with late inning rallies versus the Royals (5-6 SD1, 11-7 overall).
“We’ve had some come-from-behind wins this year, but we haven’t had any like this that were late game comebacks,” said Herder. “We kind of got hot midway through both games and then we started rolling offensively with everybody getting hits. We started hitting well late in each game and we were making every at-bat a little tough for their (Royals) pitchers. We don’t like to be in that position, but it’s nice to know that your team has enough slugging power to overcome a deficit and get us back into the game.”
NKN got off to a slow start in the 3 p.m. opening matchup and trailed 4-0 after four innings. The Pirates came back and scored two runs in the fifth, trimming the margin to 4-2. The Pirates then added a run in the sixth, narrowing the deficit to 4-3. PC responded by scoring one run as well to go up 5-3, but the Royals had an opportunity to extend their lead even further.
NKN senior pitcher Josh Elinsky relieved freshman pitcher Deryk Turner in the sixth after the Royals threatened to score, with two baserunners and two outs. Elinsky went to the mound and expertly induced an inning ending infield groundout and help thwart PC’s rally as it remained 5-3 after six innings. For Turner, it marked his first ever varsity game on the mound.
NKN then made a dramatic seventh inning comeback. After sophomore Eric Loza drew a one-out walk, senior Joshua Longfellow then connected for high fly ball to center field for an RBI triple as Loza scored to make it 5-4.
After Junior Mychal Kelly singled, Elinsky then drilled a line drive to center field for a game-winning, two RBI single, putting NKN up 6-5.
“It was good to come back and grind things out to get the win,” said Elinsky, who was pitching for the first time this year after recovering from a right elbow injury. “We haven’t had a lot of close games this year, but it a comeback effort like that, you have to step up to the plate and get a key hit. We were never worried even when we trailed because we know that we’re good enough to come from behind and pull out a win.”
NKN utilized a rock solid defense to shut down the Royals in the bottom of the seventh. Elinsky struck out the first PC batter and then senior third baseman AJ Pieper caught a line drive for the second putout.
PC then had runner on base aided by a Pirate error and had the go-ahead run at the plate. Junior first baseman Kent Pieper (AJ’s brother) then scooped up an infield grounder for the final putout of the game at first base to help preserve the Pirate victory. Kent Pieper was playing for the first time since suffering a right eye injury April 17 in a game at Nestucca.
“I felt really good, but then when it got dark it was really difficult to see with my eye injury,” said Kent Piper. “It was a long doubleheader and it got kind of dark in the last inning of Game 2. The eye is feeling better, but I’ll probably have some permanent damage for the rest of my life. I feel pretty good about our team, we have lots of talent and we just have to keep our heads in the game and continue playing good baseball and hopefully reach the playoffs.”
In Game 2, the circumstances were quite similar to the first matchup as NKN fell behind 3-0 after three innings. The Pirates responded with a fourth inning rally to narrow the margin. Junior Mychal Kelly, who earlier hit a leadoff single, scored on Jonathon Lommen’s sacrifice fly RBI to make it 3-1 after four.
Trailing 3-1 after five, the Pirates then displayed their highly prolific No. 4 ranked offense (10.15 runs per game average) to overcome the deficit. Kelly helped ignite a rally when he drew a leadoff walk. After stealing second, Kelly scored on Elinsky’s RBI single, making it 3-2.
Lommen followed with a single and then AJ Pieper drilled a long line drive to center field for a two RBI double. Elinsky and Lommen both scored, putting the Pirates up 4-3. Following a PC pitching change, junior Eric Nielsen Lambert reached base on an error and Pieper scored on the play, putting the Pirates up 5-3.
“It was nice to get the sweep, which is what we really wanted,” said Elinsky, who was pitching for the first time this year after recovering from a right elbow injury. “I think we definitely have enough talent and we’re well motivated to continue winning so that we can hopefully reach the playoffs. We made it to state last year, but we fell a little short (first round loss), so we’re hoping to go a little further this year.”
The Pirates strong defense prevented PC from scoring over the final two frames. Lommen relieved NKN starting pitcher Keygan Wagner in the seventh inning, which was played at dusk since it now sunset and darkness started to settle in on PC’s field, which didn’t have any lights. Wagner pitched a phenomenal game in throwing a three-hitter with one strikeout in six innings.
Lambert made two stellar defensive plays in catching two high fly balls in right field, which wasn’t easy under the circumstances, since it seemed to be getting darker with each passing minute. AJ Pieper then got the final putout of the game on an infield grounder that Elinsky scooped up at second base and then he threw it to first for the key defensive play to conclude the contest at 8:15 p.m.
“It’s not easy to get a sweep, especially on the road and it’s a real challenge,” said Herder. “You have to stay mentally tough for 14 innings to try to come out on top. We thought that the game would be delayed in the sixth inning because of darkness. This is the first time that we’ve played a game this year that was affected that way. Deryk did a good job in the first game and he threw very well and he kept those guys (Royals) off balance. It seems like it’s one of those things where we have a different guy that helps us pull out a win in each game. I think we have a good chance to reach the state playoffs after winning these two games. I’m really proud of my guys for showing the fortitude to make a strong comeback effort in both games.”
The Pirates have won four straight and nine of their last 10 games and are building momentum for what they hope will be a long playoff run. There’s five regular season games remaining, following Tuesday’s road contest against the No. 17 ranked St. Paul Buckaroos (results unavailable at press time). The Pirates will try to extend their win streak when they meet St. Paul (7-5, 12-8) in their next matchup in a 3 p.m. double header at home Friday. They’ll follow with a 4:30 p.m. road contest May 7 against the two-time defending state champion and No. 4 ranked Knappa Loggers (12-0, 16-1).
Neah-Kah-Nie 6, Portland Christian 5
Neah-Kah-Nie 000 021 3 – 6 9 3
Portland Christian 202 001 0 – 5 7 3
Neah-Kah-Nie 5, Portland Christian 3
Neah-Kah-Nie 000 104 0 – 5 5 3
Portland Christian 012 000 0 – 3 3 0