Eliminated from the Alaska Baseball League title hunt earlier this week, the Peninsula Oilers' 4-0 victory in their home finale on Thursday night was more than a mere formality.
It wasn't just for pride. There was a lot more at stake.
A win over the second-place Mat-Su Miners would not only salvage a trying season series with the team up north, one that owned a 5-1 mark against the Oilers, three wins coming by a single run and two in 15 and 18 innings, but it would also present Peninsula an opportunity at cracking .500 in the league with another victory on Friday in Anchorage against the Bucs.
Then there's the whole deal of momentum, building such steam before departing Friday night for Wichita, Kan., for a shot at Peninsula's fourth National Baseball Congress World Series championship.
Perhaps even more important than all the aforementioned accolades and achievements made possible by a win over the Miners on Thursday night, and maybe more crucial than winning the game itself, was preserving as many pitchers as possible heading into the 44-team tournament in America's heartland.
And following a demoralizing 4-2, 15-inning setback at the hands of the Miners on Wednesday night, a four-and-a-half hour affair that saw the Oilers use five of their top arms, Kevin Matsumoto helped accomplish each of those in one fell swoop.
In just his second start of the season, Matsumoto authored a six-hit masterpiece, allowing just three walks with one strikeout over eight intrepid innings in willing the Oilers past the Miners on a picture-perfect evening at Coral Seymour Memorial Park.
Prior to the game, Oilers manager Tom Myers said his right-hander, the only returning member of the Oilers (29-17 overall, 17-17 ABL) this season after serving a vital role on the 2006 ABL championship squad, would be limited to 80 pitches.
Rules, obviously, are meant to be broken, as Matsumoto threw 101, the most by an Oiler this season.
"It was a gutsy performance," Myers said. "After using our top three arms last night and not having the ability to use them tonight, what he did, minimizing his pitch count for at least a good five innings, allowed him to continue to go. That's probably the largest amount of pitches we've asked a guy to do, but Kevin has been, I think, managed probably by (pitching coach) Dennis (Machado) and by us collectively, so he was up to the task tonight and he definitely came through.
"I think it's a great way for him to say goodbye to Kenai and for him confidencewise. He's gotten better as the season's progressed," he added. "He was kind of an afterthought early on or a guy kind of filed to the back of the bullpen. But each performance he went out there, he performed better and got more confidence and now he's a viable resource when we go to Wichita."
Matsumoto -- who suffered a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow prior to joining the Oilers for his second stint with the team last season and underwent a year of rehabilitation instead of surgery -- entered Thursday's game with a 2-1 record and 3.38 ERA in 26 2/3 innings of work, the majority coming out of the bullpen.
With the departure of one of the team's top starters to injury and other hurlers being heavily utilized in recent marathon-type games, Matsumoto was awarded the spot start.
And he didn't disappoint. He dazzled.
Surrendering just three hits through five innings, needing only 56 pitches to advance that deep, the junior from Hawaii Pacific University stranded a runner at third in the fifth after inducing a pair of ground-outs.
His offense then made him that much more comfortable, as if he needed it, with a four-run fifth inning.
Back-to-back singles by Bryan Horst and Francis Larson, both behind in the count, set the stage for a sacrifice bunt by Joey Mills, starting because Anthony Aliotti was sidelined with an injured shoulder after diving into the fence for a foul pop-up on Wednesday.
Tre Dennis -- who was 4-for-6 in Wednesday's loss -- drove them both in with an 0-1 single up the middle, his fifth hit in his last seven at-bats.
"I started off the year pretty bad, not as well as I wanted to," Dennis explained. "And just doing hard work with the coaches and coming early and trying to get everything going and it seems like I'm getting everything to go well at the right time. So, hopefully I can keep it going in Kansas."
Vince Belnome then slapped an opposite-field double to the left-field corner, scoring Dennis and P.J. Sequierra, who also doubled and knocked Miners starter Jeremy Atkins from the game after surrendering five hits and one walk with a pair of strikeouts.
"Because he wears out that left side of the field, he stays inside the ball so well, he just took his normal approach and rifled that ball down the left field line," Myers said. "Most left-handers would have pulled off that pitch and probably rolled over."
Loading the bases with one out on two singles and a walk, Matsumoto got some help from a traditionally unsteady defense as Belnome started an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play, one of four on the game by the Oilers.
"Outstanding defense by the middle infield and all of them in general," Matsumoto said. "You couldn't ask for more from them."
Pinch-hitter Sean Rockey singled with one out in the seventh, but Matsumoto retired Will Mussan on a foul pop-up and Pat Minogue on a grounder in preserving the shutout after an exhausting 88 pitches.
Back out for the eighth, to the surprise of some, but not himself, he walked Kyle Jensen to begin the frame, but got a fly out and double play, again started by Belnome, to escape unscathed.
"He allowed us to turn four double plays tonight because he gets rid of the ball so quickly," Myers said, adding Belnome charged balls he may have waited on in the past. "He's made those adjustments to put himself in a position to be a serious professional candidate down the road."
Dan Lombardozzi, allowing a single to D.J. Gentile to open the ninth, immediately slammed the door on any hope for a comeback, one night after the Miners scored twice in the bottom of the ninth in tying the game, by getting Tyson Jaquez to hit into a 5-4-3 double play and inducing Kevin Rodland to pop out to Belnome in foul territory.
"This is exactly what we needed," Dennis marveled. "All the fans, everything they've done for us, it's definitely good to go out on top and go out with a good game, a good victory. And also for Kansas, it's a good thing for us to be coming in with a little bit of momentum, a little bit of confidence."
Finishing at 20-9 at the friendly confines of Coral Seymour, the Oilers couldn't have concluded their home season in a more appropriate fashion, including one of the largest crowds of the season to witness not only stellar play on the field, but the free hot dogs and soda off of it, too.
"I told (GM) Shawn (Maltby)," Myers joked, "you need to give away hot dogs more often when you get this kind of support."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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