Mike Archer has seen enough postseason brackets to know when the land mines are evenly dispersed.
“Look over the field and who would you want to draw?” asked the Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak coach. “I’ll tell you what I’d like — a bye.”
After last weekend’s regional round sifted out the lesser crews, the eight-team finals that open Saturday in Spokane are indeed loaded with legitimate contenders and for the Pak and Yakima Pepsi Beetles there is no softer route to the second round.
The Beetles open against defending champion Lakeside Recovery, which advanced to the World Series last year and placed third, and the Pak must deal with the hottest team in the field against Central Washington League foe Hanford, which has won 24 of its last 25 games.
Led by the Kennewick Bandits, who held off both the Pak and Beetles by two games for the top seed, the CWL has all five of its postseason qualifiers in the final eight. The coveted prize, to be determined on Wednesday, is a trip to the Northwest Regional tournament in Eugene, Ore., Aug. 8-12.
For the local duo, the feeling about such a prize is the same.
Why not us?
“Lakeside is a tough draw, but we’re down to the eight best teams and we have the confidence to be in there,” said Beetles’ coach Shawn Thompson. “I’d put our pitching staff, top to bottom, up against anybody’s and feel we have a solid shot at it.”
If Kennewick and Lakeside Recovery are considered favorites, then the Pak should feel good. Yakima Valley split four games and outscored the Bandits in league play and it fell narrowly to LR in a hard-fought regional contest, 8-6, last Sunday.
All nine-inning games in the double-elimination tournament will be played at Shadle Park High School’s well-worn A.K. Jackson Field.
The Pak (40-18) will take the field in the second game at noon Saturday against the Flames (34-18), which dropped three of four to Yakima Valley in June before getting on their hot streak.
Dylan Peters and Ryan Ross, who both just completed their junior seasons at West Valley, were the winning pitchers in Yakima Valley’s two regional wins, helping the program earn its eighth consecutive state berth and 12th in 14 years. The Pak’s pitching staff is not only young, it’s thin after five players were dismissed for a team rules violation at the end of June.
But despite that, Archer’s squad has gone 19-9 in July, developed some pitching arms and kept its momentum going.
“It’s quite a testament to these kids and I’m really proud of the way they’ve pulled together,” Archer said. “We had a couple of down days with the team when we lost those kids, but they understood there’s a right choice and a wrong choice and as coaches we’ve never wavered from that. The options were to sit and cry about it or buck up and get going, and these guys stepped up. We haven’t looked back.”
The Pak returns to state with five players who were on last year’s team that reached the third day before being eliminated by Kennewick. Four of those players comprise the top of Yakima Valley’s batting order — Jace VanDeBrake, Fabian Gutierrez, Cole Gilman and Ryan Ross.
When the Beetles (36-20) square off with Lakeside Recovery (33-11) at 3 p.m. on Saturday, they will rely on a vast reserve of experience to make it further than last year’s 0-2 state appearance. Led by the 1-2 punch of Kris Janis and Hunter Hanson at the top of the lineup, Yakima has 12 players with state experience and the team’s co-aces — Jens Jensen and Trenton Dupre — have a combined seven seasons with the senior team.
That experience was a big help when the Beetles found themselves trailing the Spokane Bandits in a regional elimination game 5-0 with two outs in the eighth inning and nobody on base. Yakima rallied with nine unanswered runs to keep its season alive.
“We were struggling at the plate and pressing a little, but it all went back to this belief these kids have had in themselves all season,” said Thompson, whose shortstop, Carlos Vijarro, is new to the program but brings big-game experience from several other sports. “They kept their cool, stayed focused and didn’t back down. It paid off because all of a sudden — bang, bang, bang — things started happening.”
In addition to Jensen and Dupre, Landon Messmore and Ryker Ford got starts in the recent series with the Pak, Jacob Sanders and Chris Alcazar have thrown shutouts and Kyle Bohl has been sturdy at the end making four relief appearances in the last seven games.
“We’ve got confidence in all of those kids,” Thompson added. “We’ve got lots of options and that’s what you need to make a deep run.”
Both Archer and Thompson have plenty to be excited about regarding the strength of their programs as the Yakima Valley Peppers and Yakima Junior Beetles qualified for the 16-team Junior Legion state tournament, which also opens Saturday. In the first round at Walla Walla’s Murr Field, the Junior Beetles play University at 9 a.m. and the Peppers take on Gonzaga Prep at 5:15 p.m.
SENIOR LEGION STATE
At Shadle Park HS, Spokane
Saturday’s first-round pairings
Game 1: Centralia SoBe Lizards vs. Kennewick Bandits, 9 a.m.
Game 2: Yakima Valley Pepsi Pak vs. Hanford Flames, noon.
Game 3: Yakima Pepsi Beetles vs. Lakeside Recovery, 3 p.m.
Game 4: Twin City Titans vs. Bellingham, 6 p.m.