ST. GEORGE – Folks may have a hard time putting a finger on exactly why, but Desert Hills just keeps winning and Friday night’s 3-0 victory over Snow Canyon clinched the region championship for the Thunder.
There’s an old joke going around Facebook that says, “I stopped believing for a couple of minutes today. Journey’s going to be really mad.”
The homage to the ’80s hair band’s big hit, “Don’t Stop Believin’” may well be a mistake Region 9 baseball fans have made at different times this year about the Desert Hills Thunder.
When the Thunder lost three straight preseason games, some may have stopped believing. When Desert Hills lost a pair of games to Las Vegas schools last weekend, some may have stopped believing. When second-place Snow Canyon was out-scoring four opponents by a combined 50-0, some may have stopped believing the Thunder could beat SC.
But Friday night all doubt was erased about how good this Desert Hills team really is. Kaleb Caplin pitched a complete-game shutout, out-dueling Warriors ace Riley Gates. Ty Rutledge stroked an RBI triple and Caplin and Zac Ivie came up with key offensive plays as the Thunder completed a season sweep over the defending state champions.
“That’s a great program over there at Snow Canyon,” DH coach Jerry Beck said. “They’re not done. They’re going to make a run at state. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see them down the road again. But we’re going to enjoy this one all we can right now.”
With Gates and Caplin mowing down hitters, every little play on the base paths was critical. The first run of the game came after Ivie had walked, followed by Rutledge’s triple just inside the right field line in the bottom of the second inning.
“We know how good they are, especially with Riley Gates pitching,” Rutledge said. “We just had to go into the game with the mentality that no one’s better than us.”
That vaunted Desert Hills defense cracked a little in the third as a fielding error in left field and a throwing error on a pick-off attempt set the Warriors up with runners at first and third with one out. But the defense flexed its muscle on the next play as shortstop Braiden Irvin scooped up a hot shot up the middle, stepped on second and fired to first for the inning-ending double play.
It stayed at 1-0 until the fifth, when the Thunder doubled their lead on a dandy hit and run. With one out and Evan Moss at second via an error and a balk, Caplin came to the plate and worked the count full. Moss took off from second just before Caplin stroked a hard liner to the left side. With SC’s third baseman covering the bag, the ball easily made it through the big hole and into the outfield and Moss scored without a throw.
The Warriors best chance to make some noise came in the next half-inning. Clint Gates led off the sixth with a walk and stole second. After a strikeout, Riley Gates singled, moving Clint over to third. With Tyler Wardell at the plate, Jacob Frei (pinch-running for Riley Gates) took off for second, hoping to draw a throw and free an opportunity for Clint Gates to score. The Thunder defense played it perfectly, bluffing a throw from first to second, then firing home to get Clint Gates out at the plate.
Wardell then singled up the middle, sending Frei flying around third and headed for home. But the relay throw from center field was perfect and Thunder catcher Carson Clement tagged Frei out easily before he could reach the plate.
“Those are the plays I live for,” Clement said. “Adrenaline’s pumping and, you know, I think it’s all reaction. Luckily, I was able to get some good throws from my teammates and I was able to get them out.”
So, just like that, Snow Canyon was gone in the sixth, even though four batters came to the plate and two of them got hits, with a third reaching on a walk.
“My defense, being able to do that, it’s just a confidence-builder,” Caplin said. “Once we get that, I can pitch my best.”
Desert Hills added an insurance run without a hit in the bottom of the sixth. Ivie reached on an error and Rutledge pushed him to second after being hit by a pitch. Clement sacrifice-bunted the pair ahead one more base and Ivie came home on a wild pitch.
Caplin allowed a two-out walk in the seventh, but that’s all and a routine grounder to Irvin started a celebration for the Thunder after the sophomore stepped on the bag for the final out of the game.
“That was one of the gutsiest pitching performances I’ve seen in my coaching tenure,” Beck said of his senior hurler. “I’ve seen a lot of good ones, but that one tonight ranks as good as any of them for sure.”
Many of the DH players talked of accomplishing their first goal, a region championship. But others talked of goal No. 2.
“We want to go undefeated,” Clement said.
The Thunder, 15-5 overall and 10-0 in region, also have a third goal, a state championship, which will be made somewhat easier by being a No. 1-seed and hosting the first two games of the state tourney. Between now and then, Desert Hills has two region games left, a home game against Canyon View Tuesday and then the season-finale Friday at Hurricane.
Snow Canyon, 13-7 and 7-4, now needs to win Tuesday at home against Dixie to hold onto second place in the region. The Warriors lead the Flyers and Canyon View by a half-game.
Videocast by Sarafina Amodt, St. George News
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