2021 could have been an incredible year for the Bainbridge baseball program. They were invited to play in the illustrious USA Baseball High School Invitation in North Carolina, they were strong contenders for a Class 3A state championship and they had perhaps the best team in school history — and maybe one of the better teams Washington state has ever seen.
Head coach Geoff Brown knows a thing or two about special teams — he was part of Jackson High School’s 2006 team, led by future Major League Baseball first-round pick Travis Snider, that went 27-0 and won the 4A state championship. Brown was the starting pitcher (and also homered) in the championship game against Auburn at Safeco Field and told the Seattle Times earlier this year he believes this Bainbridge team has more talent.
The chance to play in North Carolina was a particularly high honor for the Spartans — high school teams from Washington tend to be overlooked at the national level.
But the COVID-19 pandemic wiped away much of that. A potential squabble with the Metro League never materialized as the high school invitational was canceled, as were the district and state tournaments, and Bainbridge ended up moving to the Olympic League for the season in part because Kitsap and King counties were in separate regions in the state’s reopening plan.
More adversity followed. After a 3-0 start to the season, an error-laden performance against Port Angeles resulted in an ugly 8-4 loss.
In hindsight, junior pitching standout JR Ritchie said the loss was a great wake-up call and shook them out of complacency. “Practices were not too much fun after that, but it was so crucial,” Ritchie said.
In the beginning of the spring, it looked like the baseball season would end with a simple double-round robin schedule, but the Olympic League put together a one-day tournament for the top teams in each league, giving Bainbridge a chance to prove itself under the lights.
“It’s something we talked about all year long,” Brown said. “I know we don’t have state playoffs this year, but this is our championship. Let’s go get it.”
The players could have dwelled on what might have been, or they could embrace the moment. And, oh, did they ever.
It may not have happened on the big stage at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, but this team still got its incredible ending Saturday night at Central Kitsap High School.
Ritchie threw his first high school no-hitter and struck out a career-high 18 batters in 2-0 victory over Central Kitsap to capture the league title.
To say Ritchie was dominant is an understatement. The UCLA-commit ripped off a streak of seven-consecutive strikeouts in the middle innings, and then closed out the fifth, sixth and seventh innings with eight-straight strikeouts.
“When you’ve got a mid-90s fastball, a plus slider and a plus change-up, you’re going to be very hard to beat,” Brown said. “His command is plus too. He’s the whole package.”
Ritchie rarely had to pitch out of trouble as the Cougars only managed a couple of base runners in the second inning. An error in the outfield put a runner on second, but he was erased on a fielder’s choice and Ritchie then struck out the last hitter to end the threat.
He didn’t have to deviate much from the game plan. He threw plenty of fastballs, mixing in the occasional breaking pitch to keep them off-balance, and Central Kitsap simply couldn’t catch up to the heat.
“I definitely wanted to get through the order the first time with the fastball,” Ritchie said, “and then the second time through the order I started throwing some sliders.”
That doesn’t mean the game was a cakewalk for the Spartans. Central Kitsap right-hander Josh Flaugher was excellent in his own right, striking out 10 hitters and getting Ritchie twice at the plate with his breaking ball. “Flaugher was a bulldog,” Ritchie said. “He’s very underrated.”
Bainbridge was able to scratch across a couple of runs in the second inning. Jasiah George led off with a walk, and Kai Francis singled, moving George to third. Then the Spartans pulled off a double steal with George swiping home to grab a 1-0 lead.
Angel Maldonado lined a solid two-out base hit to the outfield to score Francis, giving Ritchie all the offense he would need. “That was a true championship game right there,” Brown said.
Bainbridge reached the title game after beating North Kitsap 8-0 earlier in the day. Francis was on the mound for the Spartans in that contest, which featured a home run from Connor Sweeny. Although Ritchie will get the headlines for his performance in the nightcap, it took the whole team to help get him there.