When the Holy War escalated into a calculated Cold War, with three games' worth of potential air strikes but no bombs dropped, Jesuit's brotherhood never cracked.
When the death march turned into a de facto doubleheader under the glaring early summer sun with Central Catholic in the Class 6A state championship game, Jesuit's fraternity, better known as BDE, stayed in fox hole mode. To whom much is given, much is tested and boy were the gifted Crusaders — blessed with talent at every position — tried not so much by the Rams' will but the fickle nature of baseball itself. Hard hits went right to Central defenders. The one meaningful base knock Jesuit gave up all game just so happened to score the Rams' only run. So many times Jesuit's offense percolated with potential big innings, only to head back into the dugout with nothing to show for it. Runners in scoring position were abandoned time and time again as Jesuit's perpetual raps at the door of another Class 6A state title went unanswered.
After a while, maybe in the 10th inning, possibly in the 11th, one had to wonder if the Crusaders' constant bad luck was going to cost them a state crown. But this club is as tight as they come. Chemistry is talked about so much nowadays that it's borderline cliché, yet this Jesuit team was the embodiment of what a united battalion fighting for the same cause can accomplish. They took up arms together.
And, mercifully, after 13 and a half innings of baseball, Kevin Blair brought them home. With Will Spitznagel standing on third base and two outs in the bottom of the 13th, Blair wasted no time, blasting a first-pitch fastball to right that scored his senior shortstop and gave Jesuit a 2-1 6A state championship win on May 1 at Salem-Keizer Volcanoe Stadium.
"We just didn't want to let each other down," Blair said. "We have that tight bond and (Central) couldn't break it today."
"Our team found energy when we needed it the most," Spitznagel said. "We kept the fight alive...and it was no different than any other game we've played, just with higher stakes. We're the same team, the same family that comes out and gets it done. We've been confident ever since the beginning of the season, and we're truly a team. It's not a one-man team. Each individual has made an impact on our team and to do it with everybody is truly emotional."
"Our whole team is just a bunch of dogs," Jesuit senior outfielder Conor O'Reilly said with a smile.
"It was a marathon and dogs win marathons," Jesuit junior pitcher Mick Abel said. "That's all from our chemistry. We all hype each other up. We love each other. We love getting in each other's heads and messing with each other. This is the greatest team I've ever been a part of."
Blair said with Central's second baseman shading toward the middle of the infield, the right side of the lot was wide open. Jesuit head coach Colin Griffin is an advocate of aggression at the plate. The skipper entrusts his team with an emerald green light to swing at the best offering, no matter what the strike count is. The right-handed infielder swung at the first offering he saw and etched himself in Jesuit folklore forever. For Blair, one of six Crusaders to play all 13 innings, enough was enough.
"It was getting old after a while," Blair said with a laugh. "I just thought 'Somebody has to end this, so why not me?' I was just trying to hit the ball hard on the ground and win the game. If we were going to win that game we just had to keep doing what we were doing. We had to keep the pressure on and playing our game."
The bottom of the 13th began with a single from relief pitcher John Trausch and perfect seeing-eye push bunt from Spitznagel, who was facing a 1-2 count at the time. Then, O'Reilly put down a bunt down a sacrifice bunt to move the potential winning run, pinch-runner Mason Masterson, to third. Kellar McCarthy, however, grounded to the Ram shortstop who threw home to nab Masterson at the dish for the second out. That brought up Blair, who other than Angeli was Jesuit's best clubber all spring. The junior third baseman, who went 4-for-7 on the day was hot all postseason long, showed he absolutely belongs in the conversation as one of the state's best hitters, once with a penchant for crunch time.
"I had a lot of confidence in Blair going up to the plate, he's been underrated all season," Spitznagel said. "He hasn't gotten the credit for how good he truly is."
"I was thinking 'I can't believe he didn't get first-team all-state'," Jesuit senior catcher Joe Angeli said of Blair. "I think he's the best hitter in Oregon and that proved it. He did a fantastic job. I knew he was going to get a hit."
"I had no doubt that we were going to win," O'Reilly said. "We just had to turn on our bats for one inning and we'd beat them."
Blair's game-winner was his second gigantic base hit of the championship clash. Trailing Central 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh, Spitznagel led off with a hard-struck single to left. With one out, McCarthy clubbed a single to right and Spitznagel fearlessly flew into third with a head-first slide that just beat the Rams' throw from right. Blair grounded to the Ram shortstop who flipped to second for the force, but the flip nor the exchange were clean, which allowed Blair to beat the throw to first and let Spitznagel score to tie it up 1-1. Fortune, tends to favor the bold, which Spitznagel was going from first to third on McCarthy's single. Central's right fielder fumbled the ball for just a split second and Spitznagel made him pay. The throw was right on line, but Spitznagel ran with so much force that he knocked the ball out of the Ram third baseman's glove, which gave Blair a shot.
"The way we come alive late in games really shows we have a lot of heart," Spitznagel said. "This team has come back from so much over the years. We haven't had an easy road in the playoffs, even as the top seed. It's just been fun to come out with these guys and play our hearts out. To end it like this, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way with any other group of guys."
It was one of those never to be forgotten state title clashes which just so happened to be the longest baseball final in OSAA history. If you wanted drama, there was plenty. White-knuckle, hold-onto your-seat-innings? Too many to count. After Spitznagel scored in the bottom of the seventh, Central countered in the top of the eighth. With two outs and a runner on second Central hit a ball back up the middle that Jesuit junior second baseman Ethan Wilson couldn't get his glove on cleanly. The lead Ram runner rounded third and barreled toward home, but Wilson, a right-handed all-Metro League pitcher, threw a run-saving beam to Angeli at home that beat the runner by two steps. Still, the CC entrant tried to go up and over the plate-protecting Angeli with an ill-fated leap that the senior backstop thwarted with a two-handed hit to the chest. Both men tumbled to the dirt, but Angeli held onto the ball for the third out, ending the top half of the eighth. Angeli, already nursing a nagging rib injury suffered in the fifth, stood in the line of fire like a running back picking up a blitzing middle linebacker and stoned him cold despite getting accidentally clocked in the back of the head by the kamikazing Ram.
"It was well worth it," Angeli said with a smile.
There were other moments that in hindsight helped preserve Jesuit's fate. In the sixth with a runner on first, Central tried a hit-and-run but flew out to McCarthy in right field who calmly threw to first for the double play, nabbing the lead Ram who wast was past the second base bag by the time McCarthy came up throwing in right. In the second, with a runner on the first, Blair gobbled up a grounder, threw to Wilson at second for the force, who found Sean Murphy at first for the double play.
From Jesuit's side, it wasn't so much a battle of attrition, but simply a matter of capitalizing on its hard work. The Crusaders had three times as many hits (13) than Central (4) and runners in scoring position in seven of the 13 innings. Credit the Rams, surely, whose pitching and defense was clutch when it needed to be. But Jesuit was the aggressor from the onset. Eventually, they were going to crack Central, it was just a matter of when. In the meantime, as frustrated as Jesuit was, it never lost its accord. When the late afternoon temperature rose to a somewhat uncomfortable level for the players and the big hit they knew was possible kept eluding them, the Crusaders didn't start pointing fingers or finding scapegoats. They were cool, collected and connected as ever.
"Nobody was yelling at each other after they got out, they just got back up in the dugout and cheered each other on," Angeli said. "The fact we just kept picking each other up is what we do."
Jesuit's postseason path prepared them for such trying conditions. Extra inning wins over Southridge and South Salem showed it wouldn't be easy but hardened the club's mettle. Post playoff game team dinners at Qdoba, Red Robin, Olive Garden and a huge team party at James Porter's house augmented an in-house credence that was fundamental in these elimination games.
"Trust is key in baseball," Angeli said. "And today nobody doubted each other. Even when I got hurt, my teammates told me they had full faith in me."
When the runs don't come in, it helps to have what's the deepest pitching staff in the state at the ready. Abel got the start and was scintillating, throwing eight innings, striking out 10, walking just one and allowing simply one run in the top of the fourth. Abel didn't throw a ball in the first inning, hurling eight straight strikes and getting an easy groundout out to Blair. Any of Abel's pregame pent up angst or energy was channeled into a tone-setting first. After Abel threw an economical 98 pitches over eight stanzas, senior closer Josh Daul came on and maintained that high level of performance, throwing three innings of scoreless relief. Central started the 11th with runners on first and second with nobody out but the third hitter bunted right in front of Angeli who easily threw to the Blair at third for the force out. The subsequent hitter hit a comebacker to Daul who threw to second for the force. With runners on the corners and two outs, Central flew out to center to get Jesuit out of crisis mode.
Then Trausch came out of the bullpen with ice in his veins, retiring all six batters he faced in two innings of pivotal work to get the win. The Crusader pitching trio allowed just four hits in 13 innings, which was even more mind-boggling than Central's staff not walking a single Jesuit hitter all game long.
"Our guys just shoved (strikes) today," Abel said. "There was a lot of adrenaline coming into today for both teams. We all kind of harnessed it differently. It was stellar pitching from all of our guys. Daul and Trausch have been working their tails off all year. This has been their goal ever since they came to Jesuit and it makes me just so happy to see them achieve it."
Angeli said pitching coach Jeff Jensen did an outstanding job of helping himself and the staff simplify the game over the course of the season and pare down a normally precarious venture.
"They didn't overthrow, they didn't fall off the mound, they just played catch with me," Angeli said. "Daul's command has come a long way and the same with (Abel). I knew that would be there. It was unbelievable, especially against a hot team like Central Catholic who had been crushing the ball."
Coming into the season everybody knew about Abel's ability but the rest of the rotation was somewhat of a mystery. However, Wilson enjoyed a huge breakthrough season on the bump, punctuated by a sound start against South Salem. Daul and Trausch morphed into reliable right arms who Griffin felt comfortable calling upon in any sort of situation, including 1-1 tie state title games with a first-place trophy hanging in the balance.
"Our pitching staff has come a long way," O'Reilly said. "Coming into the year I thought we were going to have Mick and that's about it. But we had Trausch, Wilson, Daul, (junior Mitchell) Nee step up huge. Everyone was in their bag. I loved it."
This was Jesuit's second 6A state title in program history and the second since Griffin took over in 2016. Spitznagel is the only Crusader to be a part of both title teams as he swung up from the junior varsity team when Jesuit beat Oregon City in '16. McCarthy, O'Reilly, Connor Kollas, Griffin Brandt all won titles just as their older brothers did three years ago.
The state title win was the last game in a Crusader uniform for Trausch, Daul, Angeli, O'Reilly, Spitznagel, Trausch, McCarthy, Nee and Nick Miller who missed their senior baccalaureate due to the length of the contest but will have to settle for state championship rings and one final team dinner at Ringside Steakhouse instead. McCarthy went 2-for-7 at the dish while Wilson was 2-for-5 and Spitznagel was 2-for-6 with two runs scored. Jesuit began the season as the top-ranked team in the 6A coaches' poll and went wire-to-wire as best in the classification, winning 26 games (one more than the '16 squad), the Metro League and finishing as the No. 1 seed in the 6A bracket. The Crusaders leaned on their earned homefield advantage, beating Wilson, Southridge, Beaverton and South Salem in the playoffs before finishing with the all-time win over archnemesis Central.
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