The Alaska Goldpanners found the missing piece of their puzzle Sunday.
After going two games without a run, the team stepped up at the plate and matched their high level of pitching and fielding offensively, beating the Burnaby Bulldogs 5-3 in the money round of the Grand Forks International Tournament.
The win gives the Panners a spot in today’s semifinal round. The championship game will also be played today. The winner of the tournament receives a bid to the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas, which hosts 30 of the top semi-pro summer league teams at the conclusion of the regular season. Goldpanners head coach Miles Kizer confirmed that if the team qualifies this year, they will attend.
“I’m excited about the arms we have. The biggest question is just going to be continued offense,” Kizer said after the money round win. “I like our club, especially pitching and defensewise and I think the offense is going to continue to come around.”
The Bulldogs had one of the best all-around records in the tournament going into Sunday’s money round and had recorded 32 runs and allowed only 13 in their four pool play games.
Cameron Walker made his second start on the mound for the Panners. Walker, who has primarily pitched in relief this season, had logged 82/3 innings with three hits and four strikeouts prior to Sunday, but he struggled early against the Bulldogs. Jeff Bouchard hit a leadoff single to start the bottom of the first and Tyler Yorko, who went 4 for 4 on Sunday, followed it up with a one run double. Yorko advanced to third after a wild pitch and scored on an RBI groundout by Brayden Munro to give the Bulldogs an early 2-0 lead.
After two singles and a walk loaded the bases, Kizer opted for a pitching change, bringing in Joe Riley who was scheduled to start today. Riley has been one of Alaska’s strongest relievers this season, recording a 0.64 ERA across 14 innings for the Panners.
“Cam just didn’t have his stuff going for him. It was one of those times where I felt like I had to make decision early,” Kizer said. “It was a big momentum shift for us being able to bring Joe in and shut that first inning down.”
Riley pitched four more innings, allowing four hits and one run and throwing four strikeouts. Gavin Sonnier replaced Riley in the sixth, following up the dominant performance with one of his own, going five innings with two hits and no runs and throwing four strikeouts. Walker threw 18 pitches on Sunday and is scheduled to start in today’s semi-final game. As planned upon from the beginning of the season, both Walker and Riley are transitioning from relievers to starters.
After 15 scoreless innings, Alaska broke through in the top of the third. Grant DeLappe got on base after an error by the first baseman.
A double by leadoff hitter Griffin McCormick put DeLappe on third and he scored the next at bat after an error by the Bulldog’s third baseman.
The offense continued for the Panners in the top of the fourth. With two outs, DeLappe hit a double, which was followed up with a McCormick one-run single to tie the game. Singles by Cole Carder and Blake Porter brought McCormick home to put the Panners ahead 3-2.
Burnaby responded in the bottom of the fifth with doubles from Yorko and Munro. Yorko tied the game on an RBI groundout before Riley struck out the next two batters to end the inning.
The next four innings were scoreless, sending the game to extras. Bryant Nakagawa got on base after an error by the pitcher and advanced to second after Collin Runge was walked. Tony Riley hit a two-run double to put the Panners up two. Riley was caught stealing third to close out the top of the inning.
A single and a walk brought the go-ahead run to the plate for Burnaby, but a 4-3 double play put two outs on the board and Sonnier ended the game with a strikeout.
The Panners will play the Everett Merchants at 11 a.m. AKDT today. A win would send Alaska to the championship game at 2:30 p.m. AKDT.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.