By Gail Wood
With only three starters returning off last year’s baseball team that placed third in state, the Tumwater Thunderbirds appeared to be in a rebuilding, win-a-few mode.
But Clay Hill, in his first year as Tumwater’ head baseball coach, couldn’t help himself.
“Honestly, I thought we’d do well,” Hill said. “We’ve just got a young group of kids who can play.”
He was right. Call him the eternal optimist. Tumwater, with eight new starters, just keeps on winning. The Thunderbirds go into the district playoffs with a 12-6 record, finishing 6-3 in league and tying Centralia for first place. A young Tumwater team, which has five seniors on its roster, plays at R.A. Long on Tuesday May 12.
No one would have blamed Hill if he had said, “Wait until next year.” But the T-Birds are back in the playoffs.
Tumwater’s returning starters are Elijah Hill, an all-league pitcher, Keenan Milligan, a junior center fielder, and Riley Owen, a senior who pitches and plays infield. This trio is joined by seniors Joey Jones, Brad Cramer and Tanner Angel, a third baseman who was a closer last season, saving a handful of games.
Hill, with his strikeout fastball, has again been steady on the mound. Owen has been double trouble for opponents, pitching and swinging the bat well. He’s batting around .430 and leads the team in hits and in runs batted in.
Sam Jones, a junior and a role player off the bench, reached base 13 consecutive times at one point in the season. After he got hit by a pitch, he singled and then he drew 11 straight walks.
“It was fantastic,” Hill said.
Owen, with the most hits on the team, was batting around .500 and recently tailed off and is around .430. His ERA is around 3.00. But Owen doesn’t care about his stats. He doesn’t even know what his batting average is or what his ERA is. He just cares about winning.
“I don’t like to focus on the earned runs,” Owen said. “I like to focus on the next batter. Every time it’s one, two, three. If not, I’ve got to battle back. Give them good pitches. Quality pitches around the strike zone.”
Owen, who is 6-foot-7, has a solid fastball at 84 mph. His strikeout pitch is a change-up. But Owen doesn’t try to strike out every batter. He has confidence in his team’s defense.
“My focus is on getting the ground ball and let my defense play behind me,” Owen said.
When Owen takes his last swing at the plate at a T-Bird, he won’t be finished with baseball. Next year he’ll play at South Mountain Community College in Tempe, Arizona.
Owen said his size is both an advantage and a disadvantage at the plate. It’s an advantage because he can stand off the plate and doesn’t have to hug it to be able to hit pitches on the corners. He also figured his height is a determent because of the expanded strike zone.
“Sometimes I don’t agree with some of the calls,” Owens said. “But it’s the umpire’s call.”
Owen had a unique insight to the umpire’s balls-and-strikes calls from the behind the plate.
“The way I look it this way,” Owen said. “They can’t call it a ball or a strike if you hit it.”
Hill credited his junior varsity coach, Rick McGrath, for helping to get the team’s young players ready to play varsity ball. It’s been a key to Tumwater’s success this season.
“Coach McGrath works with the JV and keeps them playing right,” Hill said. “We’ve also got kids who are playing summer ball. Everyone kind of melds together.”
Now, after losing three one-run games this season and dropping a couple of other close games, Hill is still looking for that complete game.
“We’ve been great for five innings,” Hill said. “Now, we’ve got to be great for seven now on.”
Hill has a tentative pitching rotation for the playoffs. Logan Chase will start it off, Elijah Hill will pitch the second game and Owen will throw the third game. Tumwater played R.A. Long in the first game of the season and clobbered them 11-4. But Hill doesn’t take too much from that lopsided win. He’s not worried about his team being over confident.
“Obviously, R.A. Long is going to be better,” Hill said.
After losing so many players off last year’s playoff team to graduation, Owen admits he’s been pleasantly surprised by his team’s success this season.
“I knew we had good talent coming up behind us,” Owen said. “But losing a lot of seniors like we did last year was tough. I was confident enough with what we had that was coming back.”