Gabe Hughes admits the nerves got to him.
The Rocky Mountain sophomore pitcher surrendered a double to the fence to start the game Tuesday and another hot-shot single in the first inning. He followed by walking the first two batters of the second inning.
But Grizzlies pitching coach Chris Frith visited the mound and soothed the future Gonzaga Bulldog. Hughes responded by throwing a four-hitter and leading Rocky Mountain to a 5-0 victory at Capital and a sweep of the three-game, 5A District Three championship series.
“I was nervous coming in — a sophomore in a district championship,” Hughes said. “This is the third straight district championship that I’ve been in, but the first that I’ve won. Once I got into my rhythm in the first couple innings and just started believing in myself, my stuff and especially my team, I just got them out.”
Hughes, who played on the freshman team as an eighth-grader and the junior varsity team as a freshman, struck out nine while walking three. After his rocky start, he bounced back to retire 16 of the final 20 batters he faced as he dialed in his slider in the middle innings and his changeup in the final two.
Rocky Mountain (19-5) and Capital (17-7) both clinched spots at the 5A state tournament May 18-20 at Borah and Capital based on their regular season performances. The three-game championship series determined their seeding.
The Grizzlies, who have won two of the past three district championships, will open the state tournament at 7:15 p.m. May 18 at Borah against the winner of the state play-in game, which will pit the yet-to-be-determined fifth-place team from Boise against the yet-to-be-determined second-place team from North Idaho.
Capital will open the state tournament against Lewiston (18-6), the North Idaho champ, at 1 p.m. May 18 at Borah.
The duo of Hughes and Ethan Christianson, who has signed with Seattle University, gives Rocky Mountain a potent 1-2 punch atop its rotation. The two combined to hold Capital to one run on seven hits in 12 ⅓ innings in the district championship series. They struck out 18 batters.
“It’s definitely a luxury with our pitching staff,” Rocky Mountain coach Joe Santa Maria said. “They give us a chance to win every game, it seems like. But we know situations are going to get big in the state tournament, and everyone is going to have to step up and do their part.”
That state tournament remains the larger goal for the Grizzlies, who celebrated the district title like a March victory.
Rocky Mountain entered the double-elimination state tournament two years ago with a 27-0 record before going two-and-out. Several members from that team fill key spots on the Grizzlies’ roster.
“We’re a bunch of guys that are really focused,” said first baseman Nolan Walker, who went 2 for 3 with a double and two RBIs. “We understand this win is big for us. But we understand what our bigger goal is. (State is) our main goal, and we’re ready for that one.”
Headed to state
Nine teams have already clinched their berths in next week’s state baseball and softball tournaments.
- 5A: Rocky Mountain, Capital, Timberline, Columbia
- 2A: Melba, New Plymouth
- 1A: Glenns Ferry
- 5A: Meridian, Eagle