JACKSON - It really didn't look like Wheelersburg was going to lose the game.
The Pirates' Jordan Russell had pitched seven innings of shutout baseball and the defense had played well all game. On top of that, with a scoreless tie, Wheelersburg managed to get two runners on base in the bottom of the seventh. But the Pirates wouldn't score.
After Zane Trace senior Justin Shiftlett led off the top of the eighth with a walk and made it to second on a sacrifice bunt, Ben Haynes stepped up to the plate and hit the ball into straight away right field - and right past a charging Aaron Hopper - to score the go ahead run and win a Division III District title at Jackson High School by a 1-0 score.
“You just tip your hat to Zane Trace,” said Wheelersburg coach Michael Estep. “They made plays when they had to and just came up with the big hit which was obviously the difference in the game.”
After the game Estep told his players that baseball was a game of inches and had the trajectory of the ball been just a few inches off the previous inning, Zane Trace may have never had the chance to score the winning run.
Dustin Cook singled and Russell walked to bring up Kyle Blevings with one out. Blevings blooped the ball right of second base and the ball looked like it could get through but Zane Trace's Shiftlett made a stunning diving catch to get the out and kill the Pirates momentum.
“There in the bottom of the seventh,” said Estep, “I really thought when the inning led off the way that it did that somebody was going to be able to jump in there and drive in a run but we left them on the field.”
Zane Trace coach Ron Allen, who is from Minford, said his team may have had luck on its side.
“This was a great high school baseball game,” said Allen. “It could have gone either way. We got lucky and got the base hit and they had the error that helped out.”
While the Pioneer offense won the game, it was the pitchers that made things exciting.
Russell pitched eight innings with 10 strikeouts an no earned runs while his counterpart, senior Caleb Wright, gave up just four hits and walked only one.
Allen said the win improves Wright to 10-1 on the mound this season but also said he was impressed with Russell.
“(Russell) has a great arm,” said Allen. “You don't see my guys locked up at the plate very much on a curveball like his. They were locked up the whole night and we just happened to get lucky there at the end.”
Shiftlett was the star of the day for Zane Trace despite going 0 for 2. Shiftlett walked twice, made several outstanding plays in the field, scored the winning run and caught the final out.
No one had multiple hits for Wheelersburg in the loss.
The Pirates should return the bulk of their lineup next season as they lose only one senior, second baseman Justin Hill, to graduation.
“Four years with Justin, I'm proud of him as well,” said Estep. “He's had to battle some different circumstances throughout the season and found a way to come back at it each day. You like to see how kids come into your program as freshmen and leave as seniors.”
The Pirates' season ends with a record of 24-3, an undefeated conference schedule and SOC II championship as well as a sectional title.
JOHN STEGEMAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zane Trace 000 000 01 - 1 3 0
Wheelersburg 000 000 00 - 0 4 2
WP: Wright LP: Russell
Zane Trace - Shiftlett 0-2 2BB; Josh Wonderleigh 0-2 2sac bunts; Jor. Wonderleigh 1-4; Dailey 1-3 2B; Haynes 1-4 RBI.
Wheelersburg - Lyon 0-4; Wamsley 0-4; White 1-3 2B; Hopper 1-3; Cook 1-3; Russell 0-2 BB; Blevings 1-3; Hill 0-3; Armstrong 0-3.
Records - Zane Trace 26-4; Wheelersburg 24-3