By Tanner Puckett
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The first game of the 12u Arizona Spring Spring Championships for the Issaquah Purple and Murieta Bulldogs ended in a 7-7 tie after five innings.
Early March games are some of the first played in the season, but offenses from both teams didn’t need much time to start clicking. Six of the 14 total runs scored came in the first inning.
“Really happy,” IBC Purple head coach Dan Neel said when asked about his lineup’s performance.
“We’re up in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s cold. So being able to come out here and get the bats going in the heat, you know, I think we always play a lot better when it’s in the sun.”
Murieta (CA) plated two runs in the top of the first, but the IBC Purple answered quickly. A few singles sandwiched by a pair of errors led to the Bulldogs tallying four in the bottom of the inning.
“I thought the first inning, we made a lot of mistakes,” Bulldogs head coach Mike Tozi said. “We gave up four runs and we shouldn’t have given up any. But I was really proud of the way they bounced back the rest of the time.”
Bounce back they did, as some plate discipline and savvy baserunning led to two runs in the top of the second, tying the game 4-4.
Tozi credited the continued fight to the resolve of starting pitcher Mason Hanner.
“When Mason gave up the four runs in the beginning and then got one-two-three after that, it was a big turning point for us,” Tozi said. “He stayed strong mentally and the team rallied around him.”
The game was a back-and-forth from start to finish. The fourth was the only inning where both teams failed to score, bouncing between a tie game and one-run leads the rest of the time.
A big moment that nearly changed the complexion of the game came in the top of that scoreless fourth inning.
With two outs, Murieta’s Dominic Fillmore reached first base on a dropped third strike. Bulldog baserunner Parker Cerda broke for home, but Issaquah got a throw over in time to catch Cerda in a rundown. IBC Purple catcher Ethan Scheel applied the tag at home and ended the inning.
“It’s definitely something we emphasize as coaches and we work on,” Neel said of Issaquah’s defense. “We’re actually compatible with Little League, so we only get them once a week. Once a week, we’re not going to be able to build a swing or revamp someone’s pitching motion, but we can work on defensive plays. When you get to see them happen in-game, it puts a smile on your face.”
Fillmore was a large part of why the Bulldogs were able to remain in the game. He threw two innings in relief, striking out four and walking none while allowing two hits. Fillmore surrendered one unearned run, scored on a passed ball.
“He’s one of our big guns and he did exactly what we were hoping he would do,” Tozi said. “He did great.”
Fillmore pointed to confidence in his team as a key to his success.
“I had a good defense behind me, so I just tried to throw strikes,” he said.
Another major component was a heads-up baserunning. Murieta had five stolen bases on the day, with three coming from Isaac Ochoa.
“He’s a super fast kid, and he’s super aggressive,” Tozi said.
The Bulldogs were able to get their first lead since the top of the first when they plated two in the top of the fifth, with the go-ahead run coming on a sacrifice fly by Robbie Swensen.
In the bottom half of the inning, the IBC Purple plated the tying run when Tristan Turi broke for home on a wild pitch.
Tozi emphasized pride in his team’s ability to stay focused.
“I was really proud after they made mistakes early how they bounced back,” he said. “I thought they played really well and they were in the game the whole time. I thought they had some good at-bats after a tough start.”
A point that may often go overlooked is the adjustment made by teams coming from much colder areas, like Issaquah, WA.
“Not quite used to 85 degree weather, so (trying to) stay hydrated,” Neel said. “Even our best pitchers, we’ll probably only have them go a couple of innings, even if they’re rolling. Because we’ve got a long tournament.”
As for how Neel feels about the Purple’s start, he’s happy with the performance.
“I think, because of being compatible with Little League and only having them once a week, we always start out kind of slow,” he said. “We had a doubleheader scrimmage a week ago and lost them both. It made me look up the last four years, how have we done? And I think our best start is, like, 2-5. But then we finish 11-3 after that. We pick it up. So to start out this way and having made a number of defensive plays feels good.”
Both teams have doubleheaders tomorrow, March 7. Murieta will play their first game at 8:15 a.m. against the Midland Vipers (1-0). Issaquah will start the day at 8:00 a.m. against the HB Stingrays Elite.
Adjusting for weather, travel fatigue and a heavy schedule of games takes a balance.
“We’re also going to a spring training game tonight, and they’re saying, ‘Pool, pool, pool,’” Neel said. “So it’s a combination of having fun and relaxing, but trying to get to bed at a reasonable time, because 8 a.m. is going to come quick.”