ANCHORAGE — The Wasilla Road Warriors came within one out of their first summer state title in 30 years, but finished as the state runner-up for the second year in a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to West for the Alliance Baseball League title at Mulcahy Stadium.
After tournament MVP Jacob Gilbert kept West off the scoreboard for six and two thirds innings, the Eagles came back in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs when Jack Opinsky sent a ball deep into left field, scoring Max Fink and Eli Seaver to end the game in a walk-off. The Road Warriors had their dreams dashed in the final inning for the second time in two years, but kept their spirits high after a well-fought tournament without their top player.
“To be able to be blessed to be in a state championship game and lose, I’d take that over anything. There’s so many bigger problems to deal with and we’re just dealing with a lost game. We’re lucky to be able to play right now,” said Wasilla head coach Ken Ottinger.
Gatorade’s 2020 Player of the Year Leland Wilson, a 6-foot-4 hard-throwing left hander struck out 16 in his previous state tournament outing for West and earned Top Pitcher honors for the tournament with 26 strikeouts in 12 innings of work. The Division 1 Texas Tech University commit lived up to the hype of the matchup deemed a grudge match between the top two pitchers in the state. Wilson struck out four batters in the first inning alone. Gilbert reached first as the leadoff batter when West catcher Luke Lagnes could not hang on to the third strike, allowing Wilson to strike out not three, but four batters in the first frame. Gilbert stole both second and third base before Waylon Payne poked a single into shallow center, scoring the first run of the game.
“We’ve been working on the lefties. They executed the game plan perfectly tonight. They executed what we’ve been working on,” said Ottinger.
On offense, Gilbert provided the spark Wasilla needed to jump out to an early lead against the Eagles’ hard-throwing lefthander. In the third inning, Gilbert reached on a fielder’s choice and promptly stole second again. Andre Brown hit a single up the middle that scored Gilbert to give Wasilla the 2-0 lead.
Gilbert matched Wilson through the first four batters, striking out each with a seemingly more unhittable pitch than the last. Gilbert threw nearly five innings without giving up a hit between Ivan Tillman’s bloop single over first base in the second inning and Luke Lagnes’ double to lead off the seventh inning. Gilbert allowed only those two hits and struck out 12 West batters in 6 2/3 innings of work. Gilbert allowed no walks, hit two batters, and left the game in the bottom of the seventh inning having thrown 13 1/3 consecutive innings of scoreless baseball. Despite the loss to West in the state final, Gilbert was named tournament MVP.
“He’s the best pitcher in the state,” said Ottinger. “I don’t care what anybody wants to say, Gilbert is the best pitcher in the state. He doesn’t get the recognition maybe because he’s a righty, I don’t know but he throws hard, he hits spots, he locates, he controls the game, he’s the best pitcher.”
Gilbert threw 13 1/3 innings with 25 strikeouts on the mound during his two appearances and also contributed six runs on offense. The right hander proved every bit the equal of West’s ace, lasting longer in the game, allowing less hits, runs, walking less and striking out more batters than Wilson did on Wednesday.
Wilson was pulled after his fifth inning of work for reliever Max Fink after Wilson reached his 105 pitch limit. In the seventh inning, Lagnes reached base with a leadoff double to left field and later scored West’s first run of the game on a single by Carter Stolp. Gilbert did not reach his pitch limit until striking out Bubba Mendoza for his 12th of the game and last as a Wasilla Road Warrior as there were two outs in the seventh inning.
Taking the ball from his pitcher for the last time, Ottinger embraced Gilbert on the mound before the lanky pitcher sauntered out to play centerfield. Max Fink reached on an error for West and Eli Seaver was hit by a pitch. Both scored on Jack Opinsky’s game winning double to left field, winning the game 3-2 for West and securing the state title for the Eagles for the first time since 1977.
West finishes the season with an overall record of 17-12 while Wasilla dropped to 22-6. The runner-up trophy and Gilbert’s MVP were not the only hardware taken home by Road Warriors on Wednesday. Right fielder Nolan Murphy was named the Big Stick award winner for the tournament after going 8-15 from the plate with a .533 average.
After star shortstop Clayton Boyett broke his foot on Independence Day, the Road Warriors bravely played through a valiant season in the Alliance Baseball League.
“We lost our pretty much our number one guy. Everybody wrote us off. Nobody thought that we would be here, especially seeing we’re a five seed,” said Ottinger. “The future’s bright at Wasilla. The future’s bright at the legion post. We’ve got a bunch of young kids coming through and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”