POCATELLO — Mark Thompson has seen a lot of baseball.
No, like, a lot, a lot.
Over the past seven years as Nampa Christian's public-address announcer, a conservative estimate would put his total of games attended well into the hundreds — and all with the best seat in the house, right behind home plate, looking over his trusty microphone at the action.
But such is the intricacy and wonder of the national pastime that it still manages to produce moments that leave Thompson puzzled by what he just saw.
Like in the middle innings of Malad's 4-0 win over Grangeville in the 2A state semifinals Friday at Halliwell Park, right after Dragons senior Grady Combs roped a pitch foul down the left-field line.
How, Thompson mused, does a kid that size hit the ball that far?
To be fair to Thompson, that's a perfectly valid question.
When Malad catcher John Evans came out to visit with Combs on the mound Friday, he loomed at least half a head taller than his pitcher, who wears thick-framed spectacles that, given Combs' stature contrasted with his exploits on the diamond, can only be described as Clark Kent glasses.
In the on-deck circle, Combs lets the bat swing loosely from hand to hand, looking almost like a youth ball player who doesn't quite have the strength yet to put the lumber on his shoulder and take a full cut.
On the mound, he runs through a Fidrych-ian series of fusses and fidgets, swiping his hand across his forehead, bringing it to his jersey, constantly in motion until the moment he brings his hands set, steps towards third base, and then redirects his momentum down the mound, flinging either a lightning-bolt fastball or a tantalizing slow curve.
On Friday, he seemed determined to answer a surprisingly philosophical hypothetical — how many players does it take, exactly, to win a baseball game?
In the Dragons' win over Grangeville, which sent them to the state title game and avenged one of their only three losses this season, Combs:
- threw 6 1/3 shutout innings, allowed one hit, struck out 12 and was only pulled in the seventh because he hit the one-game limit of 110 pitches,
- reached base three times, stole three bases, scored two of Malad's four runs, and instigated a rundown that led to another,
- sprung off the mound to make multiple plays, including one where he fielded a comebacker and continued running to first to beat the batter to the bag, no first baseman necessary, and,
- in the seventh inning, after he was moved to shortstop for the final two outs, cleanly fielded a ground ball and fired to first to end the game, sending the Dragons to the state title game for the first time since 2012, when they won the whole thing.
"He was a holy terror," Malad coach Bo Clark said. "He was putting fear into those guys. ... He was great. He was aggressive, he took chances at the right times on the bases, and then he was locating pitches. The only bad thing I can think of is that the rules are such that a guy with a one-hitter has to come out of a game."
Traven Ward doubled twice for Malad, and he, John Evans and Dillon Evans all drove in runs.
In the nine years since Malad's last title-game trip, the Dragons have made the state tournament every year. They've won the consolation championship three times, and played for it a fourth. They've had most of their tournament rained out (in 2019) and the whole season washed away by the COVID pandemic (in 2020). In 2018, they took a 1-0 lead into the final inning in the semifinals — against Grangeville, no less — only to lose 2-1.
That's a lot of history, a lot of tough breaks and missed opportunities.
On Friday, the Dragons needed — well, not quite one player, but also not much more — to do some washing away of their own.
"I was just focusing on getting outs," Combs said. "It feels pretty good knowing that, even though we lost one season, we're still coming back as strong as we did my sophomore year."
Malad (21-3) plays Nampa Christian, which ran its perfect record to 25-0 with a walkoff hit-by-pitch against Declo in the semifinals, in the state title game on Saturday.
First pitch is set for 2 p.m. at Halliwell Park.
MALAD 4, GRANGEVILLE 0
Malad 102 100 0 — 4 5 3
Grangeville 000 000 0 — 0 1 4
Malad — WP: Grady Combs. 2B: Ward 2.
Grangeville — LP: Blake Schoo.