WHEELERSBURG — Simply put, spearheaded by a pair of “Darling” hits, and a standout defensive and pitching performance on a beautiful-weather Wednesday, it’s safe to say the Wheelersburg Pirates “Conned’ their way to another narrow win over visiting Valley.
That’s correct, and once again, the defending Southern Ohio Conference Division II baseball champions have forged a mid-April tie atop the division standings.
That’s because junior pitcher Caden Conn tossed a five-hit one-run gem, and fellow junior Jake Darling drove in both Pirate runs, en route to Wheelersburg’s 2-1 win over the Indians — in an hour and 25 minutes in Pirate Country.
Wednesday marked the third consecutive contest between Valley and Wheelersburg in which the game took less than an hour and 45, AND in which resulted in a one-run decision.
Last season, the Indians defended The Reservation and prevailed 3-2, prior to Wheelersburg winning 1-0 —in a swift 65 minutes and getting the best of Valley standout pitcher George Arnett.
Arnett, on the mound again for Valley, faced a similar fate on Wednesday —with the Indians only supporting him with a seventh-inning earned run, with two outs and coming courtesy of two singles.
Trailing 2-1, the Indians did have the tying run at first base —and the go-ahead run at the plate —but the left-handed Conn clinched Wheelersburg’s win, getting Carson Powell to fly out with two outs to end the game.
With that, the Pirates raised their Jolly Roger record to 8-2, and evened themselves with the Indians at the top of the league standings at 6-1.
Wheelersburg lost 1-0 at Oak Hill a week ago in walkoff fashion, but the Indians edged the Oaks 6-4 on Monday —before Waverly tossed a 7-0 shutout at Oak Hill on Wednesday, dropping the Oaks to 5-2 in the SOC II.
Waverly’s (6-1 SOC II) win pulled it even with Wheelersburg and Valley, as the Tigers played host to the Indians on Friday.
Wheelersburg was at Minford for Friday’s SOC II slate — as the opening round of the double round-robin competition completed itself.
But these Pirates, already in April, were in must-win mode as far as the league championship chase.
“We told our guys this was the biggest game of this year right now. We know we have a lot more, but to reach some of our goals and stay where we want to be and get to where we want to go, this was the biggest game of the year. Our guys responded and I am super-proud of them,” said Wheelersburg coach Derek Moore.
Like last year’s meeting at Wheelersburg, all it took was one more Pirate point than Arnett and the Indians.
That’s because Conn kept the Indians off the basepaths, allowing only five hits with no walks and striking out five in facing the Valley lineup one batter shy of three times through.
Valley’s only baserunners — prior to its last at-bat — were a Jaekyn Ridout single to center to lead off the game, Hunter Edwards on a two-out infield hit in the second stanza, Ridout on a two-out single in the third, and Gabe McNeil getting hit by a pitch with two outs in the fifth.
Conn retired Ridout in the opening at-bat by inducing Jace Copley to hit into a 6-4-3 double play, then left Edwards on first — followed by Ridout and McNeil at second.
Conn saw the minimum three Indians in the first, faced four apiece in the second, third and fifth frames, and retired Valley 1-2-3 in the fourth and sixth.
In the second, fourth and sixth, he got strikeouts for the third out of each inning.
“Caden is a warrior. What he has shown all year, we expected it, but it’s even more than what we expected. He put a lot of time in this offseason just growing from last season to now, and we told him in preseason meetings that we wanted him to be our guy (ace pitcher). He’s taken that and just ran with it. Lights out so far in all four of his starts,” said Moore. “Then the defense plays great behind him. Anytime a ball was hit to Creed (Warren) at second or Connor (Estep) at shortstop, they were just like a vacuum. They made all the routine plays and that’s what we ask. Caden didn’t have his strikeout pitch all the time today, but his defense had his back. It was a great team effort, but give Caden Conn a lot of credit because he was awesome.”
So too were second baseman Creed Warren with seven defensive assists and shortstop Connor Estep with four, as both recorded one putout.
Rowdy Watkins made two catches in centerfield including the game-ender, as Kolton Salyers in right registered the first out of the last.
Valley finally scored in that seventh inning, when Chris Queen singled to center with one out and advanced on Conn’s only wild pitch —prior to Carter Nickel knocking him home with a two-out single to center of his own.
But Conn left the Indian runner at first base —the final of four for the game.
“As the game went on, we had a couple of opportunities with runners in scoring position, but we just didn’t get the hit until that last inning,” said Valley coach Nolan Crabtree. At that point, we were already down two.”
And, was that second Wheelersburg run ever a crucial one.
Darling led off the sixth inning against Arnett, and mashed a solo home run to left field that easily cleared the fence.
In the third, Darling did ALMOST the same thing— although that one was right at the fence, and McNeil made the catch right up against the chain-link.
In the first, Darling doubled to center with two outs —scoring Isaac Bockway all the way from first, after Bockway reached base on a 6-4 fielder’s choice that retired Estep.
Estep, with one away, drew a walk that led directly to that opening run.
Moore mentioned Darling’s delights at the dish.
“All three of Jake’s at-bats today, those were by far his best three at-bats of the season. His home run, he didn’t get under it as much, but the ball got out in a hurry. Hopefully, he grows from that. Proud of Jake for continuing to work and making that work pay off with a day like this,” said the coach. “When you think of it, it was good to score that second run, but how big that second run actually was, with them scoring that run in the seventh and even having a runner on with the go-ahead run at the plate. We were pumped to get that run in the first, but we kept telling our guys gotta get another one. It wasn’t a huge gap at 2-0, but it gave us a greater sense of comfort going into the seventh. You have to give George (Arnett) a lot of credit. Especially difficult to get runs off of. He keeps hitters off-balance and Valley’s defense made a lot of good plays for him.”
But Crabtree commented on the early play that wasn’t made, and Darling’s difference-maker in the end.
“Their run in the first inning, that ball kinda falls in between, but it’s a play probably that should be made. Then Darling hits the home run in the sixth that ends up being the difference. It’s like this every time we play Wheelersburg. Low-scoring one-run games. It’s going to be that type of game the next time too. We’ll see where it goes, but we just have to get better at the plate in our execution. Have to swing the bats better,” he said. “George (Arnett) keeps us in every ballgame when he is pitching and there’s not been a harder-luck loser (pitcher) than George. A phenomenal pitcher and was that again today. Darling barreled the one up that was the difference.”
Arnett faced 25 Pirates and struck out three, retiring Wheelersburg 1-2-3 in the third — after facing five Pirates apiece in the opening two at-bats.
He saw four Pirates apiece in the final three frames, as Owen Young singled in the second and Kolton Salyers doubled in the fourth for the only other basehits besides Darling’s.
Arnett stranded five runners, but Conn collected arguably the most important out —a strikeout of Copley after Ridout’s stolen base in the third moved him into scoring position.
Initially, the umpires ruled Ridout was caught stealing, but Crabtree successfully appealed —winning his case that the ball squirted out of the glove when the tag was applied.
Moore and the Pirates vehemently argued overturning of the call, as the estimated 10-minute delay did seem to fire up both sides.
Conn came back, struck out Copley to escape the jam, prevented the heart of the Valley lineup from reaching base, and made the umpires’ reversed call a moot point.
“Just an emotional moment with that whole situation, but Caden really found a way to control himself and he knew that out was the biggest out to get at that point. He did it himself, it was a huge out for us, especially because there was a runner in scoring position,” said Moore. “He didn’t allow a lot of runners in scoring position tonight, but when he did, I thought he buckled down even more to either get contact outs or strike them out himself.”
Indeed, there was a “Conn” artist working on Wednesday —as he mastered the Indians and helped lift the Pirates back tied atop the SOC II.
* * *
Valley 000 000 1 —1 5 2
Wheelersburg 100 001 X —2 4 0
VHS: George Arnett 6IP, 2R, 2ER, 0HB, 1BB, 4H, 0WP, 3K, 25BF
WHS: Caden Conn 7IP, 1R, 1ER, 1HB, 0BB, 5H, 1WP, 5K, 26BF
W — Caden Conn; L —George Arnett
HR —Jake Darling, Wheelersburg, 6th inning, none on
Valley batting: Jaekyn Ridout 2-3 SB, Chris Queen 1-3 RS, Hunter Edwards 1-3, Carter Nickel 1-3 RBI, Gabe McNeil HBP SB
Wheelersburg batting: Connor Estep BB, Isaac Bockway RS, Jake Darling 2-3 D HR 2RBI RS, Kolton Salyers 1-3 D, Owen Young 1-2
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2023 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved