SALEM — The St. Paul baseball team had three opportunities to secure a playoff berth last week and saw its promising season end after none of them panned out.
The Bucks' first chance came in the regular-season finale May 17 versus Regis, which had already sewn up the Tri-River Conference title.
St. Paul nearly became the first league team to knock off the Rams this season, but fell 5-4 in a nine-inning thriller.
With the loss, Julio Vela's team needed either Kennedy or Western Mennonite to sweep their two-game series against each other to avoid a three-way tie for second place. All the teams in the conference drew numbers before the season to serve as tiebreakers, so when the Trojans and Pioneers split those two games to create the three-way tie, St. Paul and Western Mennonite were forced to play one another in a tiebreaker game Saturday because Kennedy had drawn the highest number of the three teams before the season.
Things were still looking good for the Bucks Saturday afternoon as they took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning, but three consecutive errors to start the frame helped the Pioneers put six runs on the board and rally for a 7-2 win.
"Both teams played well for five and a half, six innings, but things didn't turn out on our side at the end," Vela said. "It was just a really tough one."
Although Kennedy, St. Paul and Western Mennonite had separated themselves from the rest of the league, they had not all played the same number of games due to the high volume of rainouts this spring. There also wasn't enough time to make all of them up before the state rankings were locked on Saturday night and the playoff field was set, so league officials decided the tie would be broken according to the teams' records versus each other and Regis.
Even then, the Bucks had the opportunity to avoid any tiebreakers by beating the Regis Rams at home May 17.
St. Paul got on the board first with a run in the bottom of the opening frame, but Regis scored twice in the second and chased starter Jaidyn Jackson off the mound by adding another run in the top of the third.
Vela opted to put the ball in the hands of ace Justin Herberger with two on and one out, and the sophomore struck out the next two batters to end the threat.
The Bucks nearly tied the contest in the bottom of the third, but had a runner thrown out at the plate. Jackson did eventually score on an infield single by Herberger, but the Rams (16-1, 13-0) answered right back with a run in the top of the fourth to make it 4-2.
Herberger struck out six in three and a third innings of relief, which gave St. Paul enough time to put together a rally and tie the game with a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth.
Campbell Smith led off the inning with a single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Holden Smith. Zachary Brentano and Mitchell Curtis followed up with back-to-back bunts to load the bases for Rawley Koch, who legged out an infield single to score Smith and make it 4-3.
The Rams then allowed the tying run to score when Jackson reached on a throwing error by the pitcher, but the rally ended with a strikeout on the next at-bat.
With Herberger on a restricted pitch count, freshman T.J. Crawford took the mound and was masterful in choreographing 1-2-3 innings in the top of the seventh and eighth.
Regis finally broke the deadlock after JaVon Logan slammed a leadoff double, advanced to third and scored on a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth.
Crawford did hit a one-out single in the bottom of the ninth, but that was all the offense St. Paul could muster, which brought it's eight-game winning streak to a close.
The team was upset afterwards, which Vela took as a good sign of its development.
"The younger guys are starting to get it," Vela said. "The success if fun, but the expectation level is what's coming up."
Kennedy (18-6, 11-4) gave the Bucks some hope of avoiding a tiebreaker game by blanking Western Mennonite 10-0 May 17, but the Pioneers answered back with a 6-4 win Friday to set up the winner-take-all game Saturday in Salem.
It proved to be a duel between Herberger, who struck out nine and walked two, and Western Mennonite ace Matt Hull, who allowed two runs on six hits with no walks and three strikeouts.
Brentano drove in the game's first run in the top of the second inning and Western Mennonite was unable to answer until putting up a run in the bottom of the fifth.
Herberger quickly regained the lead for St. Paul with an RBI single in the top of the sixth, but the Bucks committed back-to-back-to-back errors in the bottom of the sixth and the Pioneers (11-6, 9-4) cashed in for six unearned runs.
It was the kind of sequence of miscues Vela's team had all but eliminated over the past month, so it was an especially difficult pill to swallow.
With a lineup comprised mostly of sophomores and freshmen, however, the Bucks (11-10, 10-4) weren't really expected to contend for the playoffs for the second consecutive year, especially after getting off to a 1-5 start prior to league play. So in many ways, it appears the team is already ahead of schedule and, because it loses just one senior, St. Paul expects to be right back in the thick of things next year.
"As we get more removed from that hard loss on Saturday, I think that's definitely the takeaway from the season," Vela said. "There was definitive progress from the beginning of the season to the end of the season and hopefully we can carry that into the summer, continue the trend of believing and developing, and carry that with us next spring."