PALMER — The Soldotna baseball team earned a surprising berth to the state tournament after a late-season surge. It made an early exit after a series of late-inning miscues.
The Stars, who surged into the playoffs after opening the season 0-6, let a close game get away for the second straight day in a 7-3 loss to Sitka in a loser-out game Friday at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer.
SoHi lost 4-1 to West Valley in Thursday’s opening round after the game was tied at 1 in the fifth inning. On Friday, the Stars held a 3-2 lead before allowing five runs in the fourth and fifth innings combined.
“We just always give up that one inning that kills us,” said Mason Kanakis, SoHi’s starting pitcher Friday. “Besides that, pretty solid outings.”
The Stars took a 3-2 lead in the top of the fourth when Sitka starter Cole Venneberg was called for a balk with two out. SoHi’s Dusty Poole was on third base and received a free pass home.
Kanakis was efficient through three innings, mixing in curveballs with a healthy dose of fastballs. Sitka’s batters were out in front of many pitches, dropping their hands and hitting routine pop-ups.
But in the bottom of the fourth, the Wolves put runners on first and third with no outs thanks to a Jacob Licari walk followed by a Venneberg bloop single.
After Mikalai Potrzuski struck out, Max Hansen tied the game at 3 with an RBI single up the middle. Venneberg advanced to third on the play thanks to a SoHi miscommunication and scored on a passed ball during the next at-bat, giving the Wolves a 4-3 lead.
Hansen then scored from second on a routine ground ball when SoHi first baseman Jarrett Urban was slow to react after taking a throw from third baseman Tyler Fritz. That made it 5-3.
The Wolves added two more runs in the fifth, one of which came when another runner scored from second even though the ball didn’t leave the infield.
“That’s just mental letdowns,” SoHi coach Roger Phillips said.
Venneberg retired nine straight batters over the final three innings, capping his second complete game in a week. He pitched all seven innings in a contest against Juneau-Douglas last weekend.
The senior’s plan was to get the ball low in the zone, toss first-pitch strikes and keep SoHi’s hitters guessing with a mix of curveballs and fastballs.
Once the Wolves took the lead, Venneberg was deliberate in attacking SoHi’s hitters.
“That totally boosted my confidence,” he said. “Pitching with the lead really helps.”
And it didn’t hurt that Sitka played error-free ball in the field, rebounding from a 2-1 loss to Dimond in the opening round.
“I have a good defense behind me so I had a lot of confidence up there,” Venneberg said. “It’s nice to have them bounce back after a loss last night.”
After the teams exchanged a run apiece over the first two innings, SoHi’s Josiah Covey broke the deadlock with a deep drive to center in the third, scoring Fritz.
The Wolves tied it at 2 in the bottom half of the inning before the Stars took their final lead in the fourth.
Sitka coach Ed Conway said his club was lethargic early in the game. He credited SoHi for playing with energy from the first pitch.
On Saturday, the Wolves defeated Kodiak 7-6 in the game for fourth place.
“It’s always hard to get them up when you get in that loser’s bracket.
Everybody kind of loses their edge. It’s not just our team, it’s every team. You can just see the play kind of drops down,” Conway said. “I give those guys credit over there. They were into it, which was kind of nice to see.”
SoHi played without leading hitter and ace pitcher Tyler Marcuson, who was sent home early for disciplinary reasons, Phillips said. Marcuson was slated to start Friday’s game and entered the postseason with a .556 batting average after missing the entire regular season because of academic ineligibility.
His absence was a blow to the Stars on both sides of the ball.
“A lot of holes in the lineup where kids aren’t putting the bat on the ball, or if they do, they are little tappers,” Phillips said. “You’ve got to hit the ball hard and challenge the defense, make them work for it.”
It was SoHi’s first appearance at state since 2008, when the squad went 0-2 and failed to score a run.
Although the Stars were two-and-out once again, they held at least a tie for more than half of both games, a sign of improvement.
With every player but Covey set to return in 2012, Phillips believes the future is bright.
“I’m really proud of the way the kids played. We were in both games until the end. Both games were winnable,” he said. “For the kids to be able to compete at this level, it’s fantastic. This will pay dividends in the future.”