WHEELERSBURG — Simply put, Wheelersburg’s “Conn” artist was at it again —high atop the pitcher’s mound in Pirate Country on Saturday.
That’s because Caden Conn, the Pirates’ junior ace and left-handed pitcher, crafted a complete-game two-hit masterpiece —and the Pirates produced the final four runs, en route to a critical 4-1 Southern Ohio Conference Division II baseball victory over the upstart and upset-minded Oak Hill Oaks.
It was a makeup matchup on Saturday at Wheelersburg with a high noon first pitch —and was the Oaks’ first game in a week, as Oak Hill’s school trip to Washington D.C. took place.
But, Wheelersburg was the baseball capital —and Conn its president on a cloud-covered day.
Conn, supported by four runs with three earned, kept the defending division champion Pirates in front in the SOC II — as they raised their Jolly Roger record to 10-3 in the league, as part of 13-6.
How vital was Wheelersburg’s win you ask?
The Pirates, whose game at Northwest on Monday was postponed to Thursday, are tied in the league loss column with Waverly and Valley —which are both 9-3.
Valley was scheduled to play at Oak Hill on Monday, and the same for Waverly at West, but both games got postponed —while Minford moved to 10-4 in the league with a 15-1 win over Eastern.
The Oaks, on the other hand, fell to 14-5 and 8-4 —as they play at Waverly on Wednesday, with Wheelersburg traveling to Valley on Wednesday and then hosting Minford for Friday.
So, while there is so much to still be decided, the Pirates’ priority of remaining at the front of this five-horse race prior to Kentucky Derby Saturday was accomplished on the second-to-last day in April.
Wheelersburg coach Derek Moore said Saturday’s showing, as the playoff and maddening month of May is officially upon us, “really looked like Pirate baseball today”.
“This is what we like to see and hopefully, it’s the start of a special few weeks,” said Moore. “Definitely a good team effort today. We’re right where we want to be right now — in first place and not hoping for stuff to happen.”
With Conn on the mound, and in full command, the Pirates’ performance against the Oaks was nothing short of stellar.
He threw exactly 80 pitches, faced 23 total Oaks, did not throw a wild pitch, and struck out nine including the Oak Hill side in the second as part of five in a row.
In fact, Conn retired the Oaks 1-2-3 in innings two, three, five and six — and saw the minimum three in the fourth, following Nate Clutters’ single for Oak Hill’s initial hit.
However, the only other Oak Hill hit was Rylan Sams’ one-out double in the seventh —with the Pirates leading 4-1.
“Caden has been like that all year. Just really good and doing what he did today. We call it ‘Caden’ day,” said Moore. “When he gets on the mound and throws the way he does, our defense kind of plays free and easy. We want to get him some runs especially early, because he is going to control the strike zone and not walk many people. Definitely glad he is on our side. Should have had a shutout today actually.”
The Oaks’ only run was unearned —in their initial at-bat when Clutters drew a walk, and Sams reached on Wheelersburg’s only error.
Clutters scored from second, when the Pirates retired Sams in a lengthy rundown between first and second.
From there, Oak Hill had just the two baserunners with its two hits, and Pirate shortstop Connor Estep turned the fourth-inning double play — catching a shallow pop-up and doubling up Clutters by firing a throw to first base.
Clutters’ leadoff likely landed him too far from the bag, but Estep still made the play —one of his four defensive assists.
“Connor has been locked down at shortstop all year,” said Moore. “But anytime especially Caden has been on the mound, we play really good defense.”
In addition, Kolton Salyers made three flyball outs in right field.
Wheelersburg also gained a measure of revenge on the Oaks, which defeated the visiting Pirates 1-0 on April 7 in walkoff fashion.
The ace Sams pitched that contest for Oak Hill, as Mason Davis started for the Oaks this time —working the first four innings and facing the Pirate lineup two times through.
Sams pitched the final two frames, as the Pirates added an important insurance marker in the fifth —when Estep doubled off the left-field fence to lead off, stole third, and scored on Conn’s single to center.
An inning earlier, Salyers singled to center and Davis hit Jake Darling with a pitch —as Salyers’ pinch runner Breyden Byrd and Darling both stole a base, and Byrd scored on an Owen Young RBI-groundout.
The Pirates first staked a 2-1 advantage after one inning, when with one out Davis hit his counterpart Conn with a pitch, and Isaac Bockway bashed a double to left center.
Conn crossed home on a Lane Hutchinson sacrifice fly to right, then on the Oaks’ only error in the game, Bockway made it in from third for an unearned run —and the Pirates’ lead for good.
Young had the Pirates’ final of five hits, a shallow single off Sams in the sixth, as Darling drew a walk in the sixth — and Jake Clevenger walked in the second.
Moore made mention the difference in facing Davis — as opposed to the first-game starter Sams.
“That game, Sams commanded the zone, but I felt like that day we let him control the box. He struck us out a bunch, and we waited around and didn’t take advantage of any opportunities. Today, we were fully prepared to face Rylan (Sams) again, but the approach against Davis was still the same…we’re still trying to hit fastballs hard. If they spin it, and if we can find something we can drive, we want to hit it gap-to-gap,” said the coach. “I thought we did a good job today situationally with runners in scoring position, finding ways of getting guys in.”
The Pirates combined their five hits with three free passes and several stolen bases.
“Offensively, I was very happy with our approach,” said Moore. “Our guys came and just did their jobs, not trying to do too much. When our guys do that, it seems like good things happen. I was happy with the way we ran the bases aggressively, and when you can take some free bases like that, it’s huge. We got our runs creating some havoc on the basepaths, stealing some bases, then either getting clutch hits or finding other ways to get a run. Had a sac fly, an RBI-groundout, put the ball in play.”
Indeed, all the avenues the Pirates could possibly support their “Conn” artist, they did.
Now, it’s about turning the page to the calendar month of May —and for Wheelersburg to be playing its best baseball towards another possible SOC II championship.
“We control our own destiny. And teams that are remembered around here start playing their best baseball in May,” said Moore. “Hopefully, we can do that with winning a league title next week and moving into the tournament and seeing what happens.”
* * *
Oak Hill 100 000 0 —1 2 1
Wheelersburg 200 110 x —4 5 1
OHHS: Mason Davis 4IP, 3R, 2ER, 2HB, 1BB, 2H, 2WP, 2K, 18BF; Rylan Sams 2IP, 1R, 1ER, 0HB, 1BB, 3H, 0WP, 3K, 10BF
WHS: Caden Conn 7IP, 1R, 0ER, 0HB, 1BB, 2H, 0WP, 9K, 23BF
W — Caden Conn; L — Mason Davis
Oak Hill hitting: Nate Clutters 1-2 RS BB, Rylan Sams 1-3 D
Wheelersburg hitting: Connor Estep 1-3 D RS SB, Caden Conn 1-2 RBI RS HBP, Isaac Bockway 1-3 D RS, Lane Hutchinson RBI, Creed Warren RBI, Kolton Salyers 1-3, Jake Darling HBP BB SB, Owen Young 1-3 RBI, Jake Clevenger BB, Breyden Byrd RS SB