WHEELERSBURG — A sign of a great team is one that finds a way to persevere — even when it doesn’t play its best baseball.
Over the first five innings of play, nobody could argue against the kind of performance that Wheelersburg put together in a Division III, Southeast I Sectional Final against Oak Hill on Saturday afternoon.
The Pirates batted around to start the affair. Wheelersburg scored a run in each of its first four innings and two or more runs in three of the first four frames. And to top that off, the Pirates didn’t commit a single error over the first five innings of action.
However, an uncharacteristic inning — where Wheelersburg committed five errors in the sixth inning — allowed Oak Hill to send the tying run to the plate with two out and the bases loaded in the sixth.
But, as has come to be true for most Pirate units over the years, Wheelersburg responded with resiliency.
After coming on for fellow reliever Conor Mullins in the fifth inning, Kaleb Coleman proceeded to roll through the Oaks’ lineup by facing the minimum in an inning and two-thirds of relief, and the Wheelersburg Pirates, behind a nine-run outburst in the first four innings of play, rolled to a 10-5 victory over Oak Hill on Saturday afternoon.
The electric start was certainly pleasing for Michael Estep, who knew that his guys were ready for the win-or-go-home affair.
“I thought that our guys came ready to play today,” Estep said. “You could just see it. I think that when you’re with young men every day, you get a good pulse of where they are when they show up, and there was a lot of focus and determination as we started the game today. We have a lot of respect for what (Shane) Spriggs (Oak Hill pitcher/center fielder) does over there on the other side. We knew that he was going to come and pitch today. He pitched really well against us at Oak Hill, and we didn’t score any runs until the sixth inning of that game, so for our guys to come out and swing the bats the way that they did says a lot about where they were mentally. We really got out to a good start.”
After an infield single by Trey Carter and a wonderfully-placed bunt single by Jalen Miller, both runners came home on a two-RBI double to left center by Cole Darnell with one out in the first frame. Then, after an error — which scored Darnell — and a walk, Mullins responded with his RBI base knock to left field to score Kaden Coleman as the Pirates established a 4-0 lead after an inning of play.
“There were a couple of plays that Oak Hill probably would’ve liked to have had back,” Estep said. “However, there were a lot of balls that were hit really hard in the first inning, too. I thought that it started in batting practice. Guys just seemed to be focused and dialed in pretty well. There wasn’t much talking. I just really liked how we started the game today.”
In the second frame, Xander Carmichael wasted no time adding to Wheelersburg’s early advantage, as the catcher crushed a Spriggs pitch over the wall in deep left center to increase the Pirates’ advantage to a 5-0 count after two full innings of play.
“Xander’s been solid,” Estep said. “He’s put in a bit of extra work behind the plate in order to be a little bit more technically sound. He wants to be good and receive coaching in order to improve.”
In the third and fourth innings, Wheelersburg seemingly put the game out of reach as back-to-back singles by Brandon Denney and Carter allowed the pair to come home on wild pitches in the third, and two Oak Hill errors allowed Kaden Coleman and Mullins to come home in the fourth as the Pirates stretched their lead to a 9-0 tally.
But after coming within a single hit of ending the game in mercy-rule fashion, Spriggs’ third hit of the game, along with five Oak Hill errors, allowed the Oaks to turn a 9-0 contest into a 9-5 ballgame in the blink of an eye in the top of the sixth.
“We would’ve liked to have finished the game a little bit stronger, no doubt about that,” Estep said. “Sometimes, that happens. I thought that we didn’t pout and didn’t hang our heads through the adversity.”
It also helped that Kaleb Coleman was having none of what Oak Hill was trying to stew up at the plate. With two down and the bases loaded, Coleman came on in relief of Mullins, and with Spriggs back up at the dish, forced the excellent contact hitter to pop up a pitch into the infield as the senior got Wheelersburg out of the frame with the 9-5 lead still intact.
“Kaleb came in a big situation there and got a big out with Shane Spriggs at the plate and the bases loaded,” Estep said. “It looked like it took the wind out of Oak Hill’s sails and put the momentum of the game back in our favor.”
In the bottom of the sixth, the Pirates responded as they usually have when adversity hits — in A-plus fashion. After an error and a stolen base allowed Mullins to move into scoring position, Denney and Carter came up large again with back-to-back singles to score Mullins as Wheelersburg took the momentum back for good.
“We were able to come back, push a run across in the next inning, and get a little more momentum back at that time. Sometimes, these tournament games are inning-by-inning, and you have to be able to minimize the runs that the opposing team goes on. Oak Hill made one there, and we found a way to shut it off, come back, and score a run, so that was a good way to finish.”
With the victory, the Pirates will make the trip to VA Memorial Stadium once more for a bout against West. While the conference rivalry makes the contest an intense one to start with, the fact that it is a go-or-go home affair only makes it even moreso.
“We’ve been in these spots before with West and some of our additional conference foes,” Estep said. “It’s always difficult. It’s especially a challenge to try to beat somebody for a third time. They have a lot of young kids who have played really well at times this year, and they also have a couple of kids who go out and compete on the mound. We’ll have to be ready to play. We’ll get back to work next week. With the warmer and drier weather that’s being forecasted, we’ll get some good practice days in, and hopefully, be ready to go.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7