Ryan Jones, childhood friend and fellow middle infielder with Ben Warner, called it on the bus ride down to W.F. West’s Bearcat Baseball Stadium like a basketball player calls glass on a bank shot.
Warner, Black Hills’ senior shortstop and a seldom-used pitcher, was going to have a pitching performance to remember, Jones thought. The Wolves aren’t known for a rich baseball tradition, but were two victories away from their first regional berth in school history last Saturday in the 2A District IV tournament when coach Todd Venable put the ball in Warner’s hands for Game 1 against Hockinson.
Warner delivered. His final line: nine shutout innings, four hits, three strikeouts, 92 pitches. Black Hills 1, Hockinson 0.
Said Jones: “He couldn’t have chosen a bigger time to step up, and did what he did.”
Without Warner’s complete-game shutout — including a no-hitter through four innings — and one of his two hits turning into the eventual game-winning run, Black Hills (12-10) wouldn’t have been in a winner-take-all game against W.F. West 30 minutes later, scoring five runs with one out in the seventh for a 7-6 victory after squandering a 2-0 lead an inning earlier.
So here the Wolves are: playing Anacortes at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bellingham’s Joe Martin Stadium in the school’s first baseball regional appearance in the midst of a season-best three-game winning streak, thanks in part to a senior’s shutout performance in just his third pitching start.
“No one on the staff would’ve given that to us,” Venable said.
Don’t ask what Warner’s fastball velocity is, he isn’t sure. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take baseball seriously, because he does. Teammates such as Jones commend Warner’s competitive drive and sheer will to win. Baseball for Warner will likely end whenever Black Hills’ season does, so whether that’s this weekend at the Class 2A regionals or at next weekend’s final four state tournament in Yakima, he’s cherishing the final games.
“I’ve been cherishing every moment of this year,” Warner said.
Standing slightly under 5-feet-10 and weighing 155 pounds, Warner’s realization about his baseball future set in at an early age.
“If I have to be realistic and give up the glove early, it’s OK,” Warner said.
Without hesitation Venable, in his first season as Black Hills’ coach, said Warner has the talent to play college baseball, but he’s electing not to. Unless he chooses to walk on at Saint Martin’s University, where Warner will enroll this fall to study mechanical engineering, his baseball career will end after high school.
Hitting .408 in the Wolves’ lead-off spot, Warner shifted from corner infielder at third base to middle infielder at shortstop. With that came a boost in comfort as a first-year full-time shortstop; Warner has a better than .900 fielding percentage and was voted a unanimous all-2A Evergreen Conference first-team infielder this season.
“I felt like it is the most comfortable place for me,” Warner said. “I feel a lot better at short.”
Warner and Jones are the most varsity-seasoned players on the Wolves’ roster, experiencing four playoff wins in their careers — including three this postseason. So how high is the team’s confidence going into regionals?
“There’s no reason why we can’t win,” Warner said. “... A Cinderella story needs to happen.”