POCATELLO — In the end, the Marsh Valley Eagles earned the final out of their winner-take-all championship game against the Pocatello Razorbacks on Friday the same way they won the Single-A state tournament overall — in the most anxiety-inducing way possible.
After coasting into the final inning with a commanding 10-3 lead and inducing the first of the final three outs on a first-pitch popup, the Eagles stood just two outs away from being state champions — a feat that seemed close to impossible after they dropped their very first game of the double-elimination tournament to the Idaho Falls Tigers on Monday.
Despite the odds, Eagles skipper Kent Howell never lost faith in his team and found a silver lining in the team’s early adversity.
“I think the loss was healthy,” Howell said. “It made the boys go to a mindset where they had to grind out seven innings, no matter what it takes, and never quit. The loss set the tone for the rest of the week, and I think it paid off big-time.”
And when they found adversity again in the seventh inning of Friday’s finale, the Eagles leaned on that mindset one more time.
After the first out, three consecutive Razorbacks reached, loading the bases. A sac fly scored the first run, but also put Marsh Valley one out away from the title.
After that, though, reliever Dylan Driessen walked two and hit a batter, bringing two more runs home. With the score at 10-6, the bases loaded and the tying run at the plate, Driessen gutted out a masterful three-pitch sequence, inducing two misses on the first two pitches and then hitting the corner of the plate for a called strike three to finally give the Eagles the title.
The win capped a week of adversity for Marsh Valley.
The Eagles’ 5-2 loss to Idaho Falls on Monday was the second defeat they had suffered at the hands of the Tigers this year and dropped them to the loser’s bracket, one bad game away from elimination.
In their second game, the Eagles trailed the Skyline Grizzlies by a single run heading into the top of the fifth inning. The Grizz plated three more runs in their half of the fifth, and the defending champions were suddenly down 7-2 and nine outs away from a winless exit from the state tournament.
But the Eagles answered the challenge and then some by blasting Skyline for seven runs, holding on to win a 9-7 elimination game and establishing adversity as the central of the week.
If the in-game challenges, the Eagles faced a conundrum with star Payton Campbell, the Journal’s 2019 All-Area Player of the Year. A long-nagging shoulder injury hampered Campbell during the regular season to the point where Howell relegated him to the designated hitter role and kept him from playing the outfield.
Going into the state tournament, slotting Campbell at DH would no longer be an option, leaving Howell with a dilemma as to what to do with arguably his best player.
“I had been playing designated hitter all the way up until the state tournament because I couldn’t throw,” Campbell said. “Kent told me going into the state tournament that we couldn’t [have a] DH.”
Campbell didn’t for a second entertain the thought of missing the state tournament.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m not sitting the bench,” Campbell recalled.
So despite Campbell’s injury, Howell put him at second base, trusting his star slugger and fielder to play through the pain.
The decision paid off.
Campbell had perhaps the highlight of the tournament in a 6-4 victory over Malad in the quarterfinals. After a Dragon hitter topped the ball and hit a slow-rolling dribbler just past the pitcher’s mound, Campbell scooped it up while at full sprint. In one fluid motion, Campbell cleated second base for one out and made a leaping, twisting throw to first base to record an inning-ending double play.
Straight out of an Ozzie Smith highlight reel, the play was amazing for a healthy Legion player to make. For someone like Campbell, working with a serious shoulder injury, the play was the stuff of legend.
“I learned this morning at a doctor’s appointment that I tore my labrum, so I’ll have to have surgery on my right shoulder,” Campbell told the Journal on Friday night. “It’ll be a six-month recovery, but I plan on staying mentally tough and coming back an even better baseball player.”
Campbell starred again in the finale against the Razorbacks, coming within approximately one-half of an appropriate social distance unit away from a home run. Torn labrum and all, Campbell took a pitch right down the heart of the plate and blasted a moon shot to dead center. It hit the top of the fence, leaving Campbell with a standup double as a paltry reward for the feat.
Despite the seriousness of his injury, Campbell never entertained for a second the thought of not playing in the tournament.
“This could be the last time I play baseball with these guys,” Campbell said. “You never know with injuries like this.”
Campbell and his teammates came out on fire in game one of the championship round, which would’ve been the only game of the day had the Razorbacks won. In record-high temperatures, the Eagles punished an already-fatigued Razorbacks pitching staff, winning a marathon 18-10 affair to force the second game.
And as for the second game and the tightrope that the Eagles had to walk in the seventh to get the final few outs?
After the adversity earlier in the week, it was easy.