It's happened time and again to this version of the Bellingham Bells- lose a series opener and scratch and claw back to end up taking the series. When this current Bells team has it's back against the wall, they are perhaps at their most dangerous. On Sunday night, in front of a raucous and supportive 2,683 fans at Joe Martin Field, Bellingham (40-18) showed why they were the team with the best record in the league all season long. Their unwillingness to give into pressure- this time playoff, win-or-go-home pressure- forced the Corvallis Knights (38-20) to the brink of elimination by forcing a best-of-one series on Monday night for the rights to hoist the 2014 WCL Championship trophy.
"These guys have never once given up on themselves or each other," said Bells pitching coach Jim Clem on the postgame show. "Every bit of adversity has made this group, as a whole, stronger."
Dustin Breshears (Gonzaga) got it going early for the Bells in the bottom of the first, after Bellingham starter Ryan McMonigle (Concordia University) made quick work of the Knights offense in the top of the inning. After Breshears singled to right, Dallas Carroll (Utah) then singled to shortstop and Scott Heath (University of Maine) bunted them over to second and third, respectively. Danny Miller (Chico State) then grounded out to second, pushing home Breshears from third and sending Carroll to third. A wild pitch by Corvallis starter Chris Bishop (Pacific Lutheran) then scored Carroll and put the Bells up 2-0 after one.
"It's so important to jump out early against a quality opponent like Corvallis," Clem said. "Those early runs gave us momentum that the Knights didn't have."
Corvallis, though, wasn't even close to going out quietly in front of the large crowd on Sunday evening. In fact, the Knights threatened on multiple occassions before breaking through with their only run of the game in the fourth. Corvallis left runners at first and second in the second inning and the bases loaded in the third- each time striking out to strand runners in scoring position. McMonigle, who finished with four strikeouts in 3.2 innings of work, struck out both Michael Lucarelli (University of Portland) and Kevin Kline (Dixie State) to end the threats. Scott Quinlan (UCSB), who hit the eventual game-winning three-run home run to propel Corvallis to victory on Friday night, scored the lone run for the Knights in the fourth after walking to lead off the inning.
"He pitched very well tonight for us," said Clem of McMonigle. "That is not an easy team to pitch against, and he provided us with the early edge."
Dan Ludwig (Belmont University) then took over for McMonigle with two outs in the fourth and grabbed the pitching reigns and ran with them. The lefthander got Dane Lund (Oregon State) to pop out to the catcher to end the threat in the fourth and proceeded to allow a measely three hits in his 5.1 scoreless innings. After allowing a one out single to Logan Ice (Oregon State) in the sixth, he induced a flyout and a groundout to set Corvallis down, still clinging to the 2-1 advantage. Then, in the seventh, the Knights got a single by Lund and Dalton Kelly (UCSB) was hit by a pitch to put runners at first and second with one out. Marc Gallegos (Corban College) then reached on a fielder's choice that saw Bells first baseman Scott Heath's throw to second base reach late. Bases were full for Knights slugger Kline- for the second time on Sunday night. Ludwig got ahead 0-1 and then watched as Kline tapped a comebacker to the mound, tossing home and then catcher Eric Webber (Georgetown) back to first for the side-retiring double-play.
"That was, no doubt, a huge play in this game and kept them from scoring late in the game," said Carroll. "To have Dan (Ludwig) do what he did- field that grounder, throw home and get the double-play was remarkable."
The West Coast League All-Star Ludwig picked up the win in relief, as he moved to 5-1 this season for Bellingham, while the righthander Bishop endured the loss for Corvallis, falling to 4-3. Ludwig allowed only three hits in 5.1 innings with five strikeouts, allowing not a single run to a very good Corvallis offense. Bishop worked six innings with five strikeouts and scattered eight hits, allowing two earned runs.
"He's done that for us all season long," Clem said of Ludwig. "He has had an incredible season for the Bells. Every time we've needed a solid relief outing, Dan has picked us up and put us on his shoulders."
Bellingham nearly scored in the fifth after Chris Baker (Univerity of Washington) singled to lead off the inning, and with two outs Carroll singled, sending Baker to second. Heath then drilled a single to center, only to have Grant Melker (University of San Diego) come up throwing and nailed Baker at the plate attempting to score from second. The Bells remained in front, 2-1, though the throw from Melker in center was a thing of beauty.
After the self-deflating, side-retiring double-play in the seventh, Corvallis then allowed the Bells to score twice in the eighth to claim a 4-1 advantage. After Carroll led off with a double off the right field wall, Heath walked and Miller singled to right to load the bases with no outs. Knights reliever Harrison McGhee (Concordia University) then promptly walked Jack Klein (Stanford) on four pitches to force in Carroll. After a Walker Olis (Pacific University) strikeout, Eric Webber then drove in Heath with a sac-fly to right that tacked on another run for Bellingham, 4-1. The Bells would not allow another run the entire game and forced a winner-take-all Monday Championship Series finale at Joe Martin Field.
"That's a very good team we just beat tonight," said Clem. "We've had some great games against one another and it's only fitting that we would play on the last Monday of the season to determine a champion."
Carroll finished with three hits and two runs scored, while Heath collected two hits, a walk and a run scored. Miller drove in a run and singled and Breshears singled and scored a run for the Bells, who won their WCL-best 40th game of the season. Corvallis left 11 runners on base in defeat and got two hits apiece from Ice and Melker.
"We're not done yet." Carroll said. "We know what we have to do. We'll be ready on Monday."
Bellingham hasn't played in the West Coast League Championship Series since 2005, while Corvallis has made the Championship Series in seven out of the past eight seasons. The Bells seek their first-ever WCL Championship on Monday night and will do so in front of their ultra-supportive fan base that has banned together to form one of the best- if not the best- home field advantages in the enitre league this season. Gabe Cramer (Stanford) is the probable starter for the Bells, while Chris Haddeland (Linfield College) is expected to toe the rubber for Corvallis.
To order your Monday night Championship playoff tickets, visit www.bellinghambells.com or call (360) 527-1035. Over 2,600 fans saw Sunday's Championship series-tying Bells victory- will you be at Joe Martin Field for a potential Championship? It would be the Bells first-ever WCL title since their inception into the league in 2005.
Monday's Championship finale is set to begin at 7:05pm PDT with the pregame show at 6:35pm and Dave Grant calling the action. Tune into AM 930 KBAI or online at 930kbai.com for complete Championship Series coverage. Be sure to follow the Bells radio broadcast Twitter feed before, during and after game action: @BellsRadio.