MINFORD — Explosive innings in rivalry affairs are what makes the game of baseball so much fun to watch.
Going into the fifth inning of play, Minford looked to have all of the control as the Falcons used timely hitting, a stout defensive performance, and a good effort on the hill from Ethan Lauder to jump out to a 4-0 lead.
The Valley Indians, however, erased that advantage in a matter of a half-inning behind their own effective play, as Valley used its effective hitting at the top of the order to seemingly change the complexion of the game en route to taking a 5-4 advantage heading to the bottom of the fifth.
But despite facing adversity for the first time all game, Minford showed little panic.
That showed in an incredible offensive performance from the Falcons in the bottom of the fifth as Minford used a massive 11-run tilt to not only take the lead back but mercy rule Valley, 15-5, in five innings on Monday evening in Minford.
For Aaron Louder, the resolve shown by the Falcons was what impressed him the most.
“I liked the way that our guys answered (Valley’s five-run fifth),” Hopper said. “It showed the kind of fight that they have and how scrappy we really are as a team. I take pride in seeing these guys fight in the way that they do. It means a lot. When a team comes and scores five to take the lead after you’ve worked through the first four innings just to establish a four-run lead, then come back from that to score 11, it says a lot. These guys fight.”
As for Nolan Crabtree, the loss was simply the latest in a string of hard-luck defeats.
“(Big frames) have happened a lot to us lately,” Crabtree said. “Both Waverly games were like that, too. We had it at a one-run game in the sixth inning, and we gave up a 10-spot. We’ve got some youth and inexperience, but still, we’ve got to be in the game and be a little bit stronger mentally to finish and close out games. We play with everybody for four or five innings, and then, we just find a way to go the other direction instead of stepping up and finishing. We’ve got the ability, we’ve just got to get over that hump, and sometimes, that happens with inexperience.”
Over the first several innings, the matchup proved to be a dogfight with the slight edge going to Minford due to its ability to plate runners in scoring position.
In the top of the first inning, Tanner Cunningham’s single, followed by Jesse Jones’ base knock to left and a stolen base, allowed Valley to put runners on second and third with just one gone in the first frame. However, Louder worked his way out of trouble by striking out Dakota Bowling and forcing Jared Morrow into a 5-3 groundout.
That momentum from Lauder’s clever ability to work out of trouble allowed Minford to come back with the game’s first run as a walk and two stolen bases from Matthew Gullett allowed the Falcons to strike with an opening salvo following an infield error.
The good fortune for Minford, however, only continued as the third inning commenced.
After Jacob McCaleb was hit by a pitch and Luke Lindamood drew a walk, Reid Shultz laid down a beautifully placed bunt down the first base line en route to loading the bases after reaching first with no throw, and an error with one gone in the frame allowed Lindamood and Shultz to score. Payton Davis, the eight-hole hitter in the lineup, followed an excellent initial at-bat — where the designated hitter walked and stole a base — by driving in Nathan McCormick with his base knock to increase the gap to 4-0 after three innings of play.
From there, Louder and the defense took control.
Behind his control and poise — along with a defense that committed no errors through the first four innings of play and only one all game — Louder kept Valley off the scoreboard during that timespan despite the fact that Valley put runners in scoring position over three of the first four frames of action.
“Ethan did a good job,” Hopper said. “He just started to get the ball up a little bit in the fifth, and obviously, we can’t do that. Staying down in the zone is something we’re working on, and Ethan did that early on for the most part. It showed in the fact that he didn’t give up too many big hits until the fifth inning. As for the defense, I don’t know how many groundballs we’ve hit since Wednesday or Thursday, but we’ve been out here before every game, every day, with infielders taking groundballs,” Hopper said. “I believe that it’s paying off. It’s showed to this point in the season.”
However, Valley wasn’t deterred by Louder’s effectiveness — as shown by its outburst in the fifth inning.
Heath Greathouse, who walked to start the fifth inning of play, walked to begin the inning and was singled over to second by Cunningham. Even though the latter was initially forced out at second on an alert play by McCaleb in the outfield, Jones followed by blistering a triple to the right center field gap to score Kayden Mollette — who pinch-ran for Greathouse — and Cayton Ruby to cut the deficit in half.
But the Indians weren’t finished.
After Jones’ triple, Dakota Bowling followed with a single that scored the former, and Jared Morrow used a double to put the pair in scoring position. Tucker Williams then capped off the inning with a RBI double that scored Bowling, with Morrow also coming home on a Minford error that bounced out of play, that allowed Valley to storm back from a 4-0 deficit en route to a 5-4 lead.
“The top of the lineup has been pretty solid,” Crabtree said. “It’s carried the weight for us. But we’ve got to get some production out of the bottom of the order. We had a couple guys at the bottom of the order get a couple of hits tonight, and honestly, that’s what it’s at. We’ve got to be a more consistent unit, and guys just have to step up and win some spots. We’ve been rotating spots with some guys, but I want to see somebody step up and win that spot.”
Despite Valley’s efforts to storm back and retake the advantage, Minford never lost its composure.
In the bottom of the fifth, Lauder’s single and Payton Davis’ double allowed the Falcons to immediately put a pair of runners into scoring position, and another beautifully placed bunt single by Brayden Davis allowed Lauder to come home as Minford tied the score.
However, that was only the beginning of the Falcons’ massive offensive rally.
After a Darius Jordan walk, Gullett came up to the plate with the bases loaded and an opportunity to drive in at least one run with a sacrifice fly.
Instead, the senior third baseman more than one-upped that by clearing the bases with his three-RBI triple into the right center field gap to give Minford an 8-5 lead. A walk by McCaleb, a stolen base, and another walk by Lindamood was followed by an error, which allowed Gullett and McCaleb to come home, and two additional walks, along with a sacrifice fly, brought Lindamood and Shultz in to make the score 12-5 in favor of Minford. Another walk, along with two base knocks by Gullett and McCaleb in addition to an error, allowed the Falcons to claim the mercy rule victory after sending 15 batters to the plate in the fifth.
“We preached to these guys to stay back and drive the ball the other way, and they did that,” Hopper said. “It’s good to see gap-to-gap balls being hit. That means that we are staying back. It’s good to see all the way around.”
For Crabtree, it was another tough blow for a unit that is still learning how to finish.
“Tucker Williams has thrown his tail off all season long,” Crabtree said. “He threw exceptionally well against Waverly last week and held them to one run going into the sixth. It’s kind of the same thing that has reoccurred. We get towards the end there, and we misplay a ball or make a mistake of some kind, and once things go wrong, they tend to snowball. We’ve got to have some guys that want to step up and lead, and want the ball hit to them in those crucial situations. Right now, we don’t have a lot of that. These are growing pains that you have when you lose 11 seniors.”
Even with a 10-1 record to its credit and a 6-1 SOC II mark to its credit, however, Hopper knows that a battle with Waverly on Tuesday, along with another bout with Valley on Wednesday, won’t be easy tasks.
“We’ve got a tough game tomorrow with Waverly,” Hopper said. “We’ve got to win that one first. Then Wednesday, we’ve got another tough one with Valley in Lucasville. Hopefully, we’ll get the same kind of effort three days in a row. It’d be really nice to go into the back end of the week with a three-game winning streak, especially with Northwest and Athens coming up on Friday and Saturday. It’d be a big confidence booster for us, I think.”
As for Valley, Crabtree knows that the talent is there to make a late-season push — it’s just a matter of his players maturing and making the necessary strides to get better every day.
“We’ve got Tanner Cunningham going on Wednesday evening,” Crabtree said. “Tanner’s been great on the mound and at the plate for us all season. He’s a great ballplayer. We’ll see what he has going Wednesday, but regardless, the defense has to play behind him. That’s been the big thing for us all season long.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7