Most would’ve considered the Taft High School baseball team underdogs in the first round of the playoffs when they were matched up with the 20-4 Irrigon Knights. The Tigers must have missed that memo, as they proceeded to take a 5-3 victory on enemy turf yesterday.
Taft entered the first round of the State Playoffs as the No. 11 seed in the 16-team bracket. And after the May 22 win at Irrigon, the Tigers have certainly proved they’re much better than whatever ranking they are given.
Taft made the five plus hour drive to Irrigon knowing they were facing a tough opponent and after falling behind 3-0 early in the game, the Tigers didn’t falter.
“All week we stayed focused on what we were doing,” head coach Matt Hilgers said. “We knew going into the game that it was going to be a tough environment and that we had to keep our composure. We told the kids that they were going to be challenged and that we would have to overcome that challenge and give ourselves a chance to win the game at the end.”
The Tiger offense struggled through four scoreless innings to start the game, recording just two hits. But their fortuned turned around in the top of the fifth inning and Taft capitalized on a few Irrigon mistakes.
Taft drew two walks to open the inning, and then Lucas Hindman laid down a bunt, scoring Darius Smith. Trenton Fisher then drove home Ethan Thomas and the Tigers trailed by just one run. A Cody Knott double then scored two runs for the Taft, giving them their first lead at 4-3. Knott would then go on to steal home on a pass ball, giving the Tigers a 5-3 advantage.
With the lead, Taft called upon Bleiz Kimbrough to close things out on the mound – and that’s just what he did.
Kimbrough pitched the final three innings, allowing no hits, walks or runs and striking out three to seal Taft’s first round win. On offense, Eli DeMello shined at the plate, going 4-for-4 and scoring a run. Knott had one hit with two RBI’s and also scored a run.
Although their were many dazzling individual performances to point to in the box score, Hilgers said it was truly and all around team effort that got them the win.
“Yes we had some guys that performed great, but I look at what the game was as a whole and if we did not have every single person in the lineup and in the field make a positive contribution, we would not be continuing our season this week,” Hilgers said. “I could name at least one thing that every player on our team did that put us in a situation that would allow us to win the game.”
Taft now faces the three seed Santiam Christian in the quarterfinals on May 24. The Eagles are 20-6 overall this season and are 2-0 against the Tigers already this season.
On March 18, Santiam Christian won an offense heavy 11-10 game at home, and then on April 4, the Eagles again beat Taft on their home turf 11-7.
Santiam Christian is likely the favorite, but the Tigers hold a seven game win streak and will undoubtedly be a tough out for any team in the playoffs this season.
“Once you get to this point in the season, and in particular the playoffs, you never know what is going to happen,” Hilgers said. “If we show up and play our game the way we can, we will give ourselves a chance to win. That is all we can ask for is giving ourselves a chance.”
Friday’s game is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.