Corvallis found itself needing to pull out four must-win games to eventually be the last team standing and holding the West Coast League baseball championship trophy when it was all over.
Not only win those contests, but do it in a seven-day stretch against the best opponents the league had to offer.
It all came together Tuesday night as it had the previous three times, but not without some late-game jitters for players, coaches and fans alike.
Victoria had the tying run at second base before lefty Hazahel Quijada struck out the last two batters to preserve a 4-2 win in Game 3 and clinch the league title for the second straight season at Goss Stadium.
“A lot of grit. When your backs are against the wall you find out what kind of team you are and we came out on top of that one,” said Knights outfielder Elliot Willy, who played a part in his team scoring runs in four straight innings to build a 4-1 lead through give.
“It’s mainly just guys stepping up and really owning the moment. It’s a big compliment to the coaches, coaching us the way they do and getting this group assembled.”
Corvallis dropped the opening game in both its best-of-three playoff series, first to Yakima Valley and then in heartbreaking fashion at Victoria on Saturday, surrendering two runs in the bottom of the ninth to fall 5-4.
Jordan Qsar, one of the Knights’ offensive heroes this summer, said his team was ready to get back to Goss for Monday’s second game, which Corvallis won 6-0.
“We wanted it. We showed up and we expected to win,” Qsar said. “We weren’t going to let them get it from us easily.”
The wood bat league championship is the fifth for the Knights in their ninth trip to the title series in 11 years in Corvallis. That equals Wenatchee’s win total in the 13-year history of the league.
Carrying the league’s top regular-season record into the playoffs allowed the Knights home-field advantage, and they took full advantage with all four must-win contests at Goss.
Knights coach Brooke Knight said that was definitely a factor.
Knight said his team has been strong mentally all season and points to his players' work with assistant coach Youngjin Yoon.
“He talks to them constantly about mentality and strength of mind,” Knight said.
Winning and development aren’t mutually exclusive, the coach added. The team improved throughout its two-plus months as a unit and worked hard to achieve both aspects.
Quijada, owner of a good fastball, came on after Victoria found outfield grass with two lightly hit singles to open the ninth.
Quijada fielded a Harrison Bragg bunt and fired to third to get the lead runner. Quijada then got pinch hitter Noah Prewitt and Justin Orton swinging on strike-three pitches to end it.
A dogpile and water-bucket drenching of Knight came soon after, along with the presentation of the league trophy.
Corvallis starting pitcher Trenton Toplikar helped put his team in position to be able to celebrate. He produced his second straight seven-inning playoff start. He allowed four hits with four strikeouts and a walk.
“I just couldn’t be happier for that guy. He’s a special person, he’s a competitor and he’s smart, too,” Knight said, crediting Toplikar’s progress this summer. “When you’ve got competitive fire and ability to command your pitches … and he understands the game and wants to be coached. I think good things are in store for Trenton Toplikar.”
Victoria managed just one run in the first off Toplikar, a right-hander from UC Riverside, after loading the bases with no outs on a single, fielding error and a hit batter.
A double play was awarded after interference was called on a force play at second. Shane McGuire scored on a wild pitch and tag by Toplikar that was ruled just late.
Zak Taylor evened it up in the bottom of the second with a leadoff, no-doubt home run to left field. The Knights later had two batters reach base on consecutive one-out errors but got nothing out of it.
Corvallis took a 2-1 lead in the third when Qsar scored before Taylor was tagged for the final out in a rundown between first and second. Taylor would have been the third out when he struck out but he reached when McGuire, the HarbourCats catcher, couldn’t corral strike three.
Willy led off the bottom of the fourth with a double down the left field line and later scored on a two-out wild pitch for a 3-1 advantage.
One inning later, Matt Kelly doubled to the corner in left with one out and came home on Dillan Shrum’s two-out single to left.
After giving up the unearned run in the first, Toplikar allowed just three total baserunners in the next five innings. He then worked around a two-out walk in the seventh.