Knights' Outfielder Connor Hofmann of Oregon Earns WCL All-Star Game MVP Honors.July 26, 2012
West Edges East 3-2 on Game-Winning RBI Double by Corvallis Third Baseman Caleb Whalen
Knights Shine at 2012 All-Star Game
by Kevin Burke
With a West Division-high seven All-Stars, Corvallis was set to make quite the impression at the 2012 West Coast League All-Star Game in Walla Walla on Tuesday. And the Knights delivered on nearly every count.
The Corvallis crew, comprised of seven players, two coaches, and two staff members arrived in Walla Walla on Monday evening in time for the downtown block party located near the Sweets' downtown offices. The event featured live music and games, inflatables for kids and even a hot dog eating contest. Despite some pressure from teammates, nobody joined the competition.
The crowd really seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout the entire event with downtown businesses chipping in food and drinks to bring the whole thing together. Players from all around the league got a chance to meet each other and enjoy the friendly festivities before the all-day event on Tuesday.
"My favorite memory was getting to meet all the guys we play against everyday," outfielder Nate Blackham of Washington State said. "They're just like we are and you get to build the relationships that you'll remember long after you're done playing."
The day of the game was anything but your typical gameday. With first pitch scheduled for 7:35 pm, players started arriving at the ballpark around 2 pm for a 2:30 pm scouting combine, which featured nearly 20 MLB scouts clocking players 60-yard dash times. Corvallis' outfielder Connor Hofmann of Oregon posted one of the best times with a 6.60 second sprint. Jace Conrad of Kelowna posted the best time at 6.47 seconds.
Afterwards, both teams took batting practice in front of the scouts, who tracked nearly every pitch and swing. Despite the presence, most of the players weren't rattled having dealt with 20 scouts at games before.
"It all blends in after awhile," catcher Austin Barr said. "You get used to seeing them game in and game out."
Barr, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the 29th round this year, was the Knights representative in the Home Run Derby. The Stanford frosh-to-be smacked two home runs in the opening round, but fell a couple shy of advancing. Kelowna's Ryan Pearson and Wenatchee's Taylor Sparks smashed seven homers a piece in the first round.
The derby featured the first-ever WCL "swing-off" between Klamath Falls Austin Byler and Walla Walla's Shane Zeile after they tied for the last spot in the finals. Given three outs, Byler advanced to the finals with three homers to Zeile's one. One of Byler's bombs completely cleared the ballpark to deep right-center field. Despite the impressive performance, Byler was bested in the finals by Sparks who crushed two mammoth shots in the finals.
Sparks finished with 11 homers overall to win the second annual derby. Corvallis' Sean Myrom won last year's competition at Goss Stadium.
After all the pregame festivities, the game got underway at 7:47 pm with a nearly packed house of 2,006 looking on. Corvallis pitcher Jorge Perez of Grand Canyon tossed a perfect 1-2-3 first inning for the West on just seven pitches, inducing three groundouts.
"It was real fun. It was a good experience just to be there and share it with all the other guys," Perez said. "My changeup really helped me get those three groundballs back-to-back."
Rob Dittrick of Pacific followed suit in the second, striking out two in a perfect second frame.
"My pitches were working," Dittrick said. "Overall, it was as perfect an inning as I could throw."
Then the Knights' bats took over. In the fifth inning with the West trailing 2-0, Hofmann singled to right, but ended up on third after a two-base error by Bellingham's Jarel Lewis allowed Klamath Falls Tanner Nielsen to score. Hofmann scored on a groundout to knot the game at two.
Two innings later, Caleb Whalen broke the tie with a two-out double down the left field line to score Cowtlitz's Austin Diemer. Whalen was 1-for-3 with the game-winning RBI and a walk in the pitching-dominated game.
"I was just trying to pick up the runner," Whalen said. "I was just fortunate to get another fastball and keep it fair this time." Whalen had just missed a two-run homer down the left field line on the previous pitch.
Corvallis manager Brooke Knight turned to left-handed reliever Devon Barker of Centralia College to keep the lead in tact and Barker did just that, striking out two in a scoreless inning.
"It was fun getting out there and facing the best hitters in the league," Barker said. "I felt a little pressure at first with all the radar guns (from the scouts), but you have to settle in quick and know you have to show all your stuff in just three outs."
The game went down to the wire as Kitsap closer Colin Feldtman of Portland gave up back-to-back singles to start the ninth, but bounced back to strike out the top three hitters in the East order to win the game for the West 3-2.
Hofmann was named the game's Most Valuable Player with three solid singles up the middle in addition to scoring the game-tying run.
"I just thought 'no way, this is awesome'," Hofmann said. "I tried to have quality at-bats and that's one thing I've really been focusing on lately. I just went out and had fun."
After the announcement, the remaining crowd and players enjoyed a fireworks display to cap off a great couple days in Walla Walla. Coach Knight was proud of how Corvallis represented itself at the league's premier showcase.
"As an organization it's a proud moment when you can sit back and have the opportunity to watch some of our guys excel and perform on the big stage," Knight, who managed the West for the second straight year, said. "It's definitely a privilege."
Next year's location is still to be determined, but will likely be at a West Division site, perhaps Cowlitz or Klamath Falls. Whoever it is will have a tough act to follow as the Sweets organization ran a quality event that everyone could be proud of.
Photo: (L-R) Conor Hofmann, Caleb Whalen, Austin Barr, Rob Dittrick, Nathan Blackham, Jorge Perez and Devon Barker.