Facing a 2-2 tie and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning against Soldotna, a nervous Dallas Pierren stepped up to home plate, closed his eyes and swung.
The end result was a walk-off single that gave Kenai Central a 3-2 Northern Lights Conference victory over the Stars, Wednesday evening at the Kenai Little League fields.
“I didn’t see the ball, I just closed them,” Pierren said. “Kind of freaked me out when I heard it hit the bat.”
The Kenai senior not only hit in the winning run, he received the win on the mound as well. Pierren went the distance, pitching all seven innings with eight hits, six strikeouts and only one walk. At the plate, Pierren hit 2 for 3, including the winning hit and RBI.
“Our defense was a little shaky in the beginning, but once we started getting into the rhythm of things it started going good,” Pierren said. “I was a little nervous pitching the first game of the year.”
The win improves Kenai’s season record to 2-0, while SoHi opens its season 0-1.
Although the late drama came from Pierren, the Kardinals’ biggest hitters came from the bottom of the lineup. Nate O’Lena hit 2 for 2 and scored all three runs, and freshman Paul Steffensen hit 3 for 3 with two doubles, and brought O’Lena in to score on two occasions.
“We had a runner at first and tried to sacrifice and it didn’t work, and Paul steps up with two strikes and rips a double,” said Kenai coach John Kennedy. “The kid just did an excellent job.”
Second-year Soldotna coach George Stein said he was pleased with the pitching he saw, but noted the hitting and fielding could improve as the Stars begin their season.
“We had a few plays out on the field that we didn’t make, that second run we kind of gave them,” Stein said. “I’d like to see us hit a little better, but early in the year, I thought it was a pretty good ballgame.”
Tyler Covey and Klayton Justice shared pitching duties for SoHi. Covey went the first three innings with two hits, two strikeouts and five walks, while Justice finished the game with six hits and one strikeout. At one point at the end of the sixth inning, Justice retired seven straight Kenai batters.
However, after the Stars went 3-and-out at their turn to bat at the top of the seventh inning, Kenai began to make a run with some clutch hitting.
First up to bat was O’Lena with a single, followed by Steffensen with a double. Paul’s older brother Ellery Steffensen loaded the bases with a walk, and after Isaac Mese struck out, it was Pierren up to bat.
“The key thing was we had one out, bases loaded, and we had to put the ball in play,” Kennedy said. “That’s all I was hoping for at that point. Fortunately we got the ball on the ground and scored the winning run.”
Soldotna scored its only two runs right at the start of the game, when Max Conradi hit a single in the first inning to bring Covey and Kenny Griffin around the bases and give SoHi a 2-0 lead.
Kenai answered in the bottom of the second with a single from the younger Steffensen that scored O’Lena. The same sequence happened again in the bottom of the fourth, when Steffensen hit a double that scored O’Lena, which tied the game.
There were some tense moments throughout the later innings, such as the bottom of the fifth when Soldotna’s Matt Prior hit a pop-up with two outs on the board. Pierren ran towards the SoHi dugout to force the third out, but the ball dropped to keep the inning alive. Fortunately for Kenai, Prior struck out to end the inning.
“We’ve got guys playing for the first time ever, so we made some mistakes along the way,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately for us, we have to learn as we go. We’re going to be playing more games than we have practices.”
Kenai will travel to Homer on Monday, and Homer will travel to Soldotna on Tuesday for conference games.