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The little things matter: Washington bunts its way back to state championship game

La PORTE -- It's called small ball most of the time.

Around Washington Township, it might be referred to as The Senator Way or, if you will, Randy Ball, the program's blueprint from middle school on up.

"We don't throw hard, throw 90 (miles per hour). We're not going to hit home runs," James Hernandez said. "The little things are how we always win."

Saturday's 3-0 Class A semistate win over Cowan at Schreiber Field was a template of that success. Steve Hernandez tossed a shutout, picking off three runners in the process, and Washington used three consecutive seventh-inning bunts to bust out of a scoreless tie, earning a return trip to Victory Field.

"We work on the little stuff. We don't hit home runs," Steve Hernandez said, echoing his brother. "At practice, after pickoffs, we go straight to bunting. If you don't get it down, you run a lap."

For six innings, Hernandez and Cowan's Landen Hiatt matched zeroes, one as effective as the other.

"We had 'em on the ropes early," coach Randy Roberts said. "We should've been two, three runs up. We just didn't execute."

Then, with one out in the seventh, Tommy Landry flared a one-out single inside the right field line, stole second, and the match was lit.

Landry went to third as Layne Matson legged out a bunt.

"I find myself wishing I would've bunted more than we do. We probably should've done it sooner," Roberts said. "My dad's always yelling at me about bunting so much. I say, well, if we hit better, we wouldn't have to. We've had a number of games this year we've won without bunting. Our goal is to not bunt it to the pitcher, but I think today, with the heat and seven innings of pitching, getting (Hiatt) moving wasn't a bad thing to do."

James Hernandez then followed with a safety squeeze, scoring Landry as Hiatt was not able to field the ball cleanly. He flipped errantly to the plate, letting Hernandez and Matson advance.

"First and third with one out, I had an idea I was probably going to bunt," Hernandez said. "Get it down, get the run in, just like in practice off the machine. If you don't get it down, you're not going to play. Roberts instills that in us. (Landry) was already inching forward, all I have to do is get it down and he's in. It doesn't have to be perfect. They knew we're bunters. They probably had an idea. I like bunting. I knew if I get this down, it's going to be a tough play. If they get it in, it's going to be a close play, but it's got to be a perfect throw. Force them to make a play."

Bret Boettcher's safety squeeze easily scored Matson to make it 2-0.

"(We bunt) every day and we still don't do it well enough," Roberts said. "Hitting's hard. It's a lot harder to swing and hit a ball. It's a whole lot easier to stand there and catch the ball with the bat than to swing and hit it. We work and we work and we work. If you fail, I'm the one who looks like an idiot. Every dad in the stands is saying, what in the world is he bunting with two strikes for? I just think bunting is all about desire, how bad you want to do it, and that's who we are."

Steve Hernandez capped the rally with a single to right to score his brother.

"Roberts is the middle school coach, too, and in seventh grade -- our senior class, there's about 10 of us -- we did a lot of running," James Hernandez said. "Eighth grade comes around, you know you've got to get (the bunt) down or you're not going to play. All middle schoolers see the high schoolers do it."

James declares himself the better bunter of the brothers, but concedes the pickoff move edge to Steven, who went to double figures on the season with his hat trick against Cowan.

"That's 12 hits that are outs," Steve said. "(Roberts)'ll call it sometimes. I usually know. Most of the time, I know I'm usually going to throw to first the second, third pitch. I don't get nervous. I know I'm going to pick him off."

A prolific pickoff artist, Hernandez accomplished the rarest of feats in the second when he snagged a Cowan runner at first and then second without throwing a pitch.

"The second pickoff, we picked something up," he said. "Our shortstop (Colin Majda) saw it. Once I came set, (the runner) took another big (step), I just turn and get him. First base, I come up, look away, I got him. I've had two in an inning, but I've never went to first, then to second."

Roberts thought Cowan was ripe for the pickoffs, given the heat of the moment.

"I just watched their runners. It was just a matter of who we were going to pick off first," he said. "There are things we look for, things we listen for. We don't throw over there to keep people close. If we throw over there, we've seen something, we've called for something. I think the bigger game, you're all jacked up, their dugout's going crazy, the runners start, they're not paying as close of attention. That's why we preach over and over, slow the thing down and make the simple plays, like we're scrimmaging on the field. Don't get caught up in what game it is, the emotion of a semistate; if I don't win, my career is over."

Washington's last clutch play came in the seventh after a pair of one-out Cowan singles. A would-be base hit dropped in front of James Hernandez in center, but he was able to decoy the runner on first well enough to field the ball and throw to second for a force and the second out.

"I didn't think I was going to catch it," he said. "I I didn't want the guy going to third to score if I dove, so I kept my glove up to make him think I'm going to catch it, do a little talking, say I got it, I got it. If he doesn't go, I can throw it to second. I could've thrown to third, but second was the easier play. Get the out, don't do anything special."

A batter later, the Senators were celebrating a return trip to Victory Field.

"We talked over and over, the top of the order will get you to a championship, but the bottom will win it," said Roberts, who also got three hits from James Kirk. "I don't care who you are, Class A, 4A. People don't cry about not playing in an elite select travel ball game. That's a hobby. This stuff means something. I appreciate a bunch of kids, this was their goal and they're taking me back. It's all on them. They're not great ball players, but the last two weeks, they've played the game great."

Steve Hernandez recalled telling reporters after the 2019 loss to University that the Senators would return.

"(I said,) mark my words, we'll be back. I was very confident," he said. "This was our team for two years. The first time, I had it in the back of head, but we weren't thinking about it as much. It was hard to win that one, facing Reese Sharp. We're ready to win this one. We're not done yet. We're going to win."

The Senators (26-7) will play Shakamak (17-7) in the state championship at 4 p.m. on June 21, which also happens to be the Hernandez brothers' birthday.

"After our sophomore year, we were like, we've got to get back," James Hernandez said. "We had a lot of seniors. We've worked hard the whole time. We knew we had a chance. We play with confidence. We win with class. Speak everything into existence. I'd like to think we would've gone three years in a row. Our junior year, that was taken away; this year, we're back."

Washington Township advanced to the Class A state championship game with a 3-0 win over Cowan on Saturday at La Porte's Schreiber Field.

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