Leading 7-2 going into the top of the seventh inning, Jackson scored four runs to cut the deficit to one before relief pitcher Skyler Swords finally struck out Jaris Beasley to end the game.
"We haven't been able to do anything the easy way, but in the long run it's going to pay off and make us better," Lake Stevens head coach Rodger Anderson said. "We've had some tough close game, so I guess it will help us grow."
Lake Stevens and Jackson both advance to the state regional round. Cascade defeated Kamiak earlier Thursday to advance to play the No. 3 seed from Kingco on Monday for a berth in the state regionals.
Anderson would of course be happy if Thursday's near-collapse helped his team go deep into the postseason, but he certainly couldn't have been pleased while it was happening.
The top of the seventh inning began with starting pitcher Brandon Kelliher walking Alex Kiel. Kelliher came back to strikeout Jackson's starter Alec Kisena and bring the Vikings to within two outs of the district championship.
Then the Timberwolves began to rally. Alec Cheeseman reached base on an infield single and Kelliher walked Joakim Soderqvist to load the bases.
Reaching a high pitch count, Anderson decided it was time to go to the bullpen, bringing in Skyler Swords to finish the game. Kelliher pitched 61/3 innings, giving up just three hits. Kelliher, though, did struggle with his control, walking four and throwing five wild pitches.
"He struggled and never really got command of his curveball," Anderson said. "Sometimes I think he gets pumped up and he gets too much adrenaline going. That's why we let him run the bases most of the time because I think it takes away some of that energy and calms him down a little bit."
When Kelliher wasn't struggling to find his control, all he did was get Jackson batter after Jackson batter out.
"He didn't want to come out when I pulled him, but he was up to about 120 (pitches), so it was time."
The situation didn't immediately improve when Swords entered the game. He walked Conor Plaisance on four pitches to score Keynan Foster, who ran for Kiel. Swords came back to strikeout Jeremy Spring, to bring the Vikings just one out from the championship. An out it looked like they had with the very next batter when Alek Baumgartner hit a pop up, but the left fielder lost the ball in the lights and more runs scored. Plaisance advanced to third and Baumgartner to second on the play.
The Timberwolves got within another run when the next batter, Aaron Avalos barely beat out and infield single to score Plaisance and giving Jackson the tying run at third base.
The comeback attempt ended with a Beasley strikeout.
The game ended is a thriller but started with the makings of a blowout. The Vikings were able to get to Kisena right away, putting up four runs in the bottom of the first inning. Things started badly with the first Lake Stevens batter, Justin Brown, who Kisena hit with a pitch.
Then the Vikings started to hit Kisena. Gavin O'Neil reached base on an infield single – then the heart of the batting order did the big damage. Corey Bullens doubled to right-center field scoring Brown and O'Neil to give the Vikings a 2-0 lead. The next batter, Kelliher, gave himself a bit more of a cushion on the mound when he doubled to right field, scoring Bullens. Kelliher would later score on an RBI infield-single by Taylor Shea to give the Vikings a 4-0 lead after the first inning.
"(The first inning) was huge because it gave us the confidence," Anderson said. "We faced Kisena earlier in the year and it was just 1-2-3 and he kind of threw it by us. So for us to jump on him that quick and that early – that was our goal every game."
Bullens led the Vikings offensively, batting 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBI.
"He is our silent assassin," Anderson said. "He's the most quiet soft-spoken guy you could imagine. He struggled a little bit in the middle of the season. He started off really hot and then he struggled and he has just quietly gone about his work – and he has been on fire lately.
"He is the one that, how he goes, we go when it comes to offense."
Jackson scored two runs in the top of the second inning – one on a wild pitch and the other on a sacrifice-bunt to get to within 4-2.
Lake Stevens got the two runs back in the bottom of the fifth. Bullens scored on an error by the Jackson shortstop and Matt Del Fante later delivered an RBI double.
The Vikings added one more run, which ultimately proved to be the game-winner in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI double by O'Neil.
After never really finding their stride in the regular season, the Vikings are headed into regionals with nothing but confidence.
"They say once you get to this point you just need two good pitchers and anything can happen," Anderson said. "And we have two good pitchers, so anything can happen."
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Everett Memorial
Jackson 020 000 4--6 4 1
Lake Stevens 400 021 x--7 12 2
Alec Kisena, Tyler Wingert (5) and Alex Kiel. Branden Kelliher, Skyler Swords (7) and Matt Del Fante. WP – Kelliher. LP – Kisena. 2B –Corey Bullens (LS) 2, Kelliher (LS), Del Fante (LS), Gavin O'Neil (LS). Records – Jackson 13-8, Lake Stevens 14-9.
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