With experienced senior ace Jake Arnold on the mound, the Kenai Central baseball squad had little room for error against the Kodiak Bears on Tuesday night at the Kenai Little League Fields.
After three straight hits at the top of the batting lineup scored two runs for the Kardinals and a three-and-out performance at the bottom of the first inning for Kodiak, it was looking promising for the young Kenai team that has played 10 less games than Kodiak in 2015.
However, small mistakes and inexperienced hands allowed Kodiak to walk away with an 8-2 Northern Lights Conference victory over Kenai. Kodiak improved to 6-5 overall (4-0 conference), while Kenai dropped to 0-2 overall.
Kenai coach John Kennedy said he was pleased to see the hot start the team had, particularly because he had his most experienced players at the top of the lineup.
“The kids were patient, smart and they listened to me,” Kennedy said. “I thought we did a pretty good job all night, I was real pleased with what our pitchers did, but when we made a mistake, Kodiak made us pay for it.”
Four Kenai pitchers took the mound, starting with senior Ellery Steffensen, who went two innings with three hits, one walk and one strikeout. Junior Sam Combs got his first time on the mound this year and went two innings with two hits and one walk, sophomore Paul Steffensen threw two innings with three hits, one walk and one strikeout, and Nate O’Lena finished the final inning with three hits.
But it wasn’t enough to match Arnold, who used his four-year experience to shake off the rust in the first inning and throw a complete game, topping out at 84 miles per hour at one point in the early innings. Arnold gave up hits on the first three batters — singles from both Steffensens and O’Lena — but then settled in by allowing one hit the rest of the game.
“My cutter was working the best,” Arnold said. “There’s not too many advantages out here, it’s kind of a small field.”
Arnold ultimately struck out eight and walked four batters. On offense, Arnold went 1 for 4, finally getting his first hit in the top of the seventh with a booming double to right field that scored Branden Pickett.
Erik Hocum hit 2 for 4 for Kodiak, while teammates Frank Carlson and Joe Schactler also went 2 for 4. Schactler scored twice and Sam Bennett added two RBIs.
After the hot start by Kenai left Kodiak trailing 2-0 after one inning, the Bears picked it up with a single from Carlson, followed by a ground-out by Arnold that brought Carlson in to score from second base. A single by Bennett scored Schactler to tie the game up at 2-2 after two innings.
Kodiak took the lead at the top of the third with a sacrifice fly to center field by Hocum that brought John LaVan home. LaVan set up the run by stealing second and third base following a walk with Combs on the mound.
“I know they have a lot more games than we have, and they have a lot more experience than we do, and it pays big dividends,” coach Kennedy said.“They take our little miscues and turn them into runs.”
Josiah Chya and Schactler both scored on a passed ball by Kenai catcher Conner Johnson and an additional throwing error by Combs back to home plate that increased Kodiak’s lead to 5-2 in the fourth inning.
A two-out single by Carlson in the fifth plated Hocum for a 6-2 advantage, and a ground-out by Bennett in the sixth scored Mitchell Kane for a 7-2 lead.
Heading into the seventh, Arnold said coach and father James Arnold told his team to focus on one out at a time to secure the win. That huddle was followed by two singles from Hocum and Pickett, which preceded Arnold’s two-out RBI double.
“Just go out there and play like we know how to play,” Arnold said. “The first inning, we played a bit nervous, and it’s our first time playing on a dirt field this year. That was new to us. But we finished strong.”
Arnold held Kenai in the bottom of the seventh with three consecutive outs.
Kenai and Kodiak match up again today at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Little League Fields.