BELLINGHAM - It was only six days - not even a full week. To the Bellingham baseball team, it probably seemed like six minutes - six minutes holding their breath under water.
How could a week that started out with so much promise end so badly?
The Red Raiders entered last week alone atop the Northwest Conference standings after having won their first five league games of the spring, including one over Class 2A state runner-up Lynden.
Six tortuous days and four games later, they found themselves saddled with their first three NWC losses by a total of four runs. Their once brilliant postseason hopes all of a sudden were struggling on life support after Bellingham sandwiched a pair of seventh-inning losses to Sehome and Sedro-Woolley around a win over Squalicum, before dropping its second one-run game of the week at Anacortes.
"Three heart-breaking losses last week - we just wanted to come back this week and make a fresh start, like we hadn't even played a game this year," Bellingham senior Matt Richard said. "We wanted to forget everything that happened last week and come out and be the team that we know we can be - hit the ball around the yard and play solid defense."
The Red Raiders proved they can still do just that to themselves and anybody else who questioned them after the disastrous week, as they used a sparkling start by Richard and a five-run rally in the fourth inning to grab an important 7-3 NWC win over visiting Burlington-Edison on Wednesday, April 24.
The win was especially big, considering the Red Raiders' struggles last week had not only dropped them out of the top spot in the conference but into a tie with the Tigers (9-8, 6-4 NWC) for the conference's fourth and final berth into next week's Class 2A Northwest District Tournament entering the day. Bellingham (12-5, 7-3) now holds a one game lead and the tiebreaker over the Tigers with two games remaining in the regular season at Nooksack Valley on Friday, April 26, and at home against Ferndale on Monday, April 29.
"I think coming into today what was lacking in those last games, especially those walk-off wins, was the energy," Bellingham junior outfielder Oscar White said. "I thought we brought the energy for Anacortes, and we just came up empty there. We definitely had a lot of energy today. Against good teams like this you need it. Combine that with our talent, and it can be good."
It didn't hurt Bellingham to have its ace on the mound, either.
Richard allowed six hits and walked none while striking out six in the complete game win - his fifth victory of the season.
After loading the bases with one out in the second on an error, a single and a fielder's choice, Richard retired 11 straight, before he allowed three runs on three hits and a hit batter in the sixth. But by then, Bellingham already had staked him to a 6-0 lead.
"He was Matty today," Bellingham coach David Farrell said. "Matt has been a kid that has always stepped up for big games. He's a catalyst for us on the bump. He competes even when he's off a little bit. He bulldogs it. When he's on, he's on, and kids play hard behind him, because they know the ball's going to be in play. Today was evidence of that."
A perfect example was the beautiful running catch Aaron Burke made in right center field to end the threat in the second inning on a ball hit by Nathan Reisnour that appeared headed for extra bases.
"I think today we came out with more energy and better attitude," Richard said. "We know that it's down to crunch time for us right now, and this game was crucial. We stayed up all seven innings and had guys yelling in here - the whole dugout was up, and it was just a great environment here."
That environment got a boost in the first, when Burke drew a leadoff walk and scored on Alex Check's sacrifice fly.
Though it was great to get the 1-0 lead, the Red Raiders' recent history with the losses to Sehome and Sedro-Woolley didn't make them feel all that comfortable, even with Richard on the mound.
They got that comfort in the bottom of the fourth when they touched Burlington starter Aaron Daut for five runs.
Check got the big inning started with a single, before Connor Phelps doubled to center to bring up White with two runners in scoring position.
"I knew I had my team behind my back - they were all cheering and pretty loud," White said. "My approach was think middle-away, think middle-away. I knew (Daut's) windup was quick to the plate, so I knew I had to get my foot down fast. I thought middle-away, I saw it middle-away, and I hit it middle-away. It ended up going to the fence, which surprised me, because off the bat it felt a lot weaker. It started a great rally, obviously. I'm proud to be a rally starter."
White's double started a rally that continued with Burke's RBI ground out and Richard's line-drive single that scored Nate Pearsall and Dante Check.
After Burlington cut the lead in half in the top of the sixth, Richard pushed Bellingham's advantage back to four with his third single of the game to score Pearsall.
He then struck out the first two batters he saw in the top of the seventh, before Burlington got back-to-back singles on a bloop and a bad hop. Richard responded, picking up another strikeout to end the game, getting the Red Raiders back to their winning ways and keeping their postseason hopes alive.
"At this point it's just game one of three," Farrell said. "Yeah, it's a good win and we can kind of enjoy it a little bit against always a good program. However it's one of three. We have another game against Nooksack on Friday that we have to focus on and play good baseball, and then we've got Ferndale after that. It's a big win. It's a good win for us, but if we lack focus and we lose, then we're going home."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
BELLINGHAM 7, BURLINGTON-EDISON 3
Burlington-Edison 000 003 0 - 3 6 1
Bellingham 100 501 x - 7 7 2
WP: Matt Richard (5-1). LP: Aaron Daut. Highlights: Bellingham: Matt Richard 3-4, 3 RBI; Austin Shenton 1-4; Alex Check 1-2, R, RBI; Connor Phelps 1-3, 2B; Oscar White 1-2, R, 2 RBI, 2B.