In tournament situations, it’s all about getting the clutch hit.
Unfortunately, when the Minford Falcons put themselves in position to obtain a key hit or two, it seemed like the Zane Trace Pioneers’ defensive unit was right there to make a excellent defensive play.
That fact, along with a four-run fifth inning that broke a 1-1 tie, sealed Minford’s fate as a complete game performance from Eric Cook and a two-hit performance from Jacob McCaleb weren’t enough to lift the Falcons in a 5-3 loss to the Pioneers in the Division IV, Southeast II District Finals on Saturday afternoon at VA Memorial Stadium.
For Aaron Hopper, it simply comes down to how the ball bounces sometimes.
“Zane Trace lucked out on a couple of double plays there, and that’s baseball,” Hopper said. “Things happen for a reason. Unfortunately, we weren’t on the right side of things today. We had breaks go our way all season long. It’s baseball. It can go either way.”
Even though Zane Trace struck with the opening salvo in the top of the first inning on an error and a RBI base hit from Austin Chaffin, Minford — as they did on Friday evening and in so many of their contests over the 2017 season — didn’t panic.
That was evident in the third inning, when the Falcons used the skills of leadoff hitter Darius Jordan to their advantage. Jordan singled, advanced to second base on a sacrifice by Ian Tolle, made his way over to third on a deep flyout from McCaleb, and came home on a passed ball that rolled all the way to the backstop to tie the score at one apiece.
“I think that’s one thing that our kids have done all year long,” Hopper said. “They haven’t panicked when we’ve gotten down or fallen behind. For a lot of teams, the wind kind of goes out of their sails once somebody gets that first run. Every inning is a fight for us.”
Cook, who threw a complete game seven-hitter for the Falcons, then took over. In his final game for Minford, the senior proved to be efficient in holding Zane Trace to two above the minimum or less in every frame but the fifth inning. He was helped by another brilliant defensive effort by his teammates, who only committed one error in the field. That included his fellow pitching hand in McCaleb, who made a brilliant sliding catch in the Minford bullpen to halt Zane Trace’s efforts in the top of the fourth inning of work.
“I don’t think that we just have a No. 1 pitcher,” Hopper said. “I believe that we have a 1-A and a 1-B pitcher. It could go either way between Jacob (McCaleb) and Eric. I think that they are very equal and have their own pluses. We throw very comfortable feeling either one of them in any situation. Eric did a great job today. He battled all game long, and unfortunately, it just didn’t go his way.”
In the bottom of the fourth inning, it looked as if Minford was going to be able to supplement Cook’s efforts with a game-changing inning at the dish as Nathan McCormick successfully sacrificed over Luke Lindamood, who walked, and Ethan Lauder, who was hit by a pitch, to move the pair over to second and third base with one out in the fifth inning.
However, in an unfortunate turn of events, Reid Shultz’s bullet of a shot — which was nailed toward the third base line — was snagged by Chad Ison, and with Lindamood moving on contact, all Ison had to do was step on the third base bag for the five-unassisted double play to end the frame with no harm done.
That play set the stage for Zane Trace as the Pioneers came right back in the fifth inning and grabbed the momentum. A single by Lane Larson and a three-unassisted sacrifice bunt by Drew Rittenhouse allowed Issac Beam to give Zane Trace the lead with his single to right field two batters later, and, following another single by Chaffin, Jeremy Brooks launched a RBI double into the right field gap to score Beam. Then, with runners on second and third, Ryan Winans found a crease in the Minford defense as the left fielder shot a ball down the third base line to score both runners as the Pioneers took a 5-1 lead after five innings of play.
Still, Minford didn’t say die.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Falcons came back with a strong inning as singles by McCaleb and Matthew Gullett, along with a passed ball, allowed the pair to advance to second and third. Lindamood then brought in McCaleb on a productive 4-3 RBI groundout, and Lauder followed with his RBI single to bring Gullett around.
“We had a lull in the middle innings there, but we tried to battle and come back, and I believe that’s a good thing to have,” Hopper said. “We have a lot of young kids, but to see those kids fighting at their age is a really good quality to have, especially going forward.”
Unfortunately for the Falcons, bad luck struck again.
With McCormick up again, the designated hitter launched a ball straight back up the middle and looked to have a base hit that would advance Lauder to third base.
Unfortunately, McCormick hit a line drive right back to Jeremy Lambert on the mound, and again, Lauder, who was moving on contact, was doubled up to end Minford’s final serious scoring threat. Lambert then retired the Falcons in order in the seventh as the 5-3 tally became the final score.
While the loss ended Minford’s season, it’s clear that Hopper had a successful campaign in his first season as the head coach of the Falcons’ baseball program. A Division III District Final appearance with a group that regularly started six returning lettermen of its nine position players in the field will tell one that much.
However, Hopper believes that it wouldn’t be possible without the leadership of the four seniors that will depart the program at the end of the school year — Eric Cook, Matthew Gullett, Jacob McCaleb, and Ian Tolle.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the leadership that they’ve provided for us all year long,” Hopper said. “They’ve shown these younger guys what it means to fight and work hard as far as getting what you get is concerned. I believe that every bit of what’s happened this year is because we’ve work our butts off for everything that we’ve earned.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7