SEATTLE -- The mood in the interview room at Safeco Field was awkward to be sure.
The Richland Bombers had just beaten Newport of nearby Bellevue 6-2 in the 4A state semifinals, and players and coaches from both teams were sitting at a raised table in front of a room mostly full of empty chairs and five reporters.
The Richland players, pitcher Cody Shepherd and catcher Josh Rapacz, were doing their best not to smile too much -- no need to rub it in with their Newport counterparts sitting nearby.
Bombers coach Ben Jacobs was talking about Rapacz's suicide squeeze in the seventh, a key play as Richland tacked on three insurance runs in its final at-bat.
"Nothing else was working," Jacobs said, still frustrated by some base-running blunders and less-than-stellar clutch hitting. "To be honest, I didn't think it would work. We practice it every day, and he (Rapacz) has terrible technique."
So then, coach, why call the play?
"He told me he could do it," Jacobs summed up. "You trust your players."
Once again, like they have so many times in the past, the Bombers rewarded that trust with the right plays at the right time, literally squeezing by a Newport club that had won 10 of 11 games coming in.
Shepherd threw all seven innings and Rapacz went 3-for-4 with a double to help top-ranked Richland (23-2) get back in the title game for the third time in five years. The Bombers, vying for their fourth championship since 1999, play No. 8 Puyallup (21-3) at 7 p.m. tonight. The Vikings beat No. 2 Tahoma (21-3) 4-1 in the other semifinal. The championship game will be webcast on waldcast.net, and a is a link on the WIAA website.
Despite the four-run final margin, this game was nip-and-tuck.
Newport, a scrappy bunch that lost five straight at one point and was 5-7 midway through the season, scored a run in each of the first two innings as Shepherd struggled to find the grove that has made him lights-out in the second half of the season and particularly in the playoffs.
The Knights (16-10) sprayed hits all over the field and had four to go with their 2-0 lead after two.
But Shepherd settled in after that, giving up just four more hits and walking two to finish the game in 90 pitches. He faced just one over the minimum in the last four innings.
"The first couple of innings, I was just trying to find a rhythm. Then I got going," said Shepherd, who improved to 7-1 and in 21 postseason innings and has allowed four earned runs and struck out 23.
"When he gets on a roll, I just sit back and let him do what he wants," Rapacz said.
Still, Richland wasn't having much luck on the offensive side, finally getting on the board in the third inning when sophomore Zach Rapacz led off with a single and came home on Dan Jacobs' RBI hit. But the Bombers couldn't take full advantage in the inning and left the bases loaded.
They didn't get that big hit until the fourth, when Chris Cecil delivered yet again from the bottom of the lineup with a two-out double to the gap in right-center, easily the hardest-hit ball to that point and more than enough to bring around Quinn Zorich.
With the score tied and their team delivering an extra-base knock, the
150-plus Richland fans breathed a little easier. And so did the Bombers.
"That was a big deal for us," Josh Rapacz said of Cecil's hit. "It showed us we could hit.
"It felt like eventually we were going to get it done."
Richland scored another run in the sixth, though three mistakes on the basepaths cost them a big inning. That didn't come until Newport's bullpen lost control in the seventh, walking home a pair of runs after Josh Rapacz's squeeze.
"This should have been a championship game," said Newport coach Brian Fischer, who has guided the Knights to three of the program's six state titles, including the 1997 championship over Kennewick.
Richland turned in another top-notch defensive effort, backing up Shepherd with error-free play and ending the game on a sharp 6-4-3 doubleplay. In five postseason games, the Bombers have committed just three errors.
"Never doubt 'em," Ben Jacobs reiterated. "You trust your players. You trust their abilities, trust them to get the job done, and about 96 percent of the time in their careers, they got the job done."
YAKIMA -- Othello could only muster one run, that coming in the fifth inning of a 12-1 loss to Cedarcrest in the state semifinals at County Stadium.
Shon Valdez led the Huskies with two hits.
Othello will play W.F. West, which lost 2-0 to Selah in the other semifinal, at 1 p.m. today in the third-fourth game.
YAKIMA -- Nick Klicker struck out 16 batters to lead DeSales, the defending state champions, back to the title game with a 4-2 victory over Napavine.
The Irish are searching for its ninth title in 10 years when it takes on NW Christian at 4 p.m. today.