SLOCUM — Over the course of the 2017 season, there’s little doubt that the East Tartans’ baseball program is the most improved unit of any in the SOC.
And while East may not have played its best overall game on Saturday afternoon, that improvement was still evident in Saturday afternoon’s Division IV, Southeast I Sectional Semifinal contest against Western.
Zach Garrett struck out 11 batters in four innings of work, Tommy Lambert and Brady Douthat each scored a pair of runs, and the East Tartans, behind the efforts of the trio, advanced to the sectional finals by recording a 6-3 victory over the Western Indians.
However, first-year head coach Matt Miller is still looking for further improvement out of his young ballclub.
“We didn’t hit the ball as well as I’d like to today,” Miller said. “We were a little jumpy at the plate and a little bit anxious. However, it was the first postseason tournament game for a lot of them. We know that we have some areas to improve on, but we’re going to keep working and keep fighting.”
From the outset, Garrett came out firing on all cylinders, as the sophomore pitching arm didn’t allow a hit through his first three innings on the hill while striking out eight Western batters. Garrett did run into a little bit of trouble in the fourth inning when a wild pitch allowed the Indians’ Brock Jordan to score, but the sophomore recovered by recording a pair of strikeouts — including a punchout of Curtis Groves — to stay in control.
“Zach threw the ball well,” Miller said. “He came in and threw strikes. That’s what we preached coming into the day — pound the zone, make (Western) hit the ball, and field it. Zach came in and threw a heck of a game for four innings, and Tyler (Winston) and Drew (Lowe) came in after that and did the same thing.”
While Garrett showed off a mature approach on the hill, the East offensive lineup showed off its aggressive baserunning tactics on the basepaths by turning several Western misplays into crucial runs.
In the opening inning, Lambert’s walk and stolen base, along with another walk drawn by Douthat, put Garrett in a position to strike.
While Garrett hit a grounder to the right side of the diamond, an infield error, along with a lazy relay throw back in from the outfield, allowed Lambert and Douthat to come around from second and first, respectively, to score and put the Tartans up by a 2-0 tally after an inning of play.
“We like to utilize the speed that Tommy and Tyler bring to the table in order to make things happen,” Miller said. “With them, we force the defense to make plays, and their success at the plate sets us up for Drew (Lowe), Brady (Douthat), and Zach (Garrett) to drive those guys in.”
After the charge by Western in the fourth inning of play, the Indians responded in the fifth frame as a leadoff single by Lane Brewster and a hit by pitch allowed the Indians to put runners on first and second with nobody out.
However, Tyler Winston — with the help of Drew Lowe — helped East get right out of trouble.
Winston, who came on for Garrett in the fifth frame, forced Jordan into a six-unassisted double play that was turned completely by Lowe, who had the presence of mind to tag the lead runner out and step on the second base bag all in one fellow swoop. Winston then struck out Bryce Brewster to end the threat completely.
And in the bottom of the fifth, East’s continued persistence on the basepaths paid major dividends.
After consecutive base knocks by Lambert and Lowe, along with a drawn walk by Douthat, JD Hatcher was hit by a pitch, which allowed Lambert to come home uncontested. Lowe and Douthat then headed home on great hustle and baserunning from the pair, as Lowe came home on a wild pitch while Douthat advanced home on an error as East increased its lead to a 5-2 margin after five innings of play.
In the sixth inning of action, Western closed the gap again on a single by Connor Ferneau, an error, a walk, and a groundout RBI that scored Ferneau, but Lambert, once again, shut the door for good by getting a forceout at home. East then got the run back in the bottom of the sixth inning as a leadoff walk by Lucas Bradley, two wild pitches, and an error allowed Brock Bradley — who pinch-ran for Lucas Bradley — to score in an uncontested manner. Lowe then struck out three Western batters in the seventh inning to recover from allowing a run off of an error and a wild pitch to obtain the save and seal the deal for the Tartans.
With the victory in hand, East will make the short trip over to Rosemount to face off against Clay. While the Tartans lost both contests, East played the Panthers to a tight 5-3 count in the pair’s first meeting in Rosemount back on April 21.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Miller said. “We know that we can compete with them. During the second go-around, we didn’t play as well against them, but we know that we’re there. Clay is a very good ballclub that is very well-coached. I’m good friends with Marc (Cottle), and he’s a heck of a coach. We know that we’ve got our hands full, but we’re looking forward to (Tuesday’s contest).”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7