They did it again.
But what else would you expect?
It is the Wheelersburg baseball program, after all.
After trailing by a 3-1 deficit after two and a half innings of play against Zane Trace, the Pirates could’ve folded up camp.
However, that’s not in the blood type of Michael Estep and his Wheelersburg unit.
Most blood types are O-positive, but for Estep and his crew, it may as well have been A — for the amazing resilency that the unit put together on Thursday evening.
A dandy five-inning performance in relief by Trey Carter — where the sophomore walked none and allowed just two hits — and three hits in the sixth inning, along with a passed ball and a wild pitch that allowed Cole Darnell and Cole Dyer to come across as the tying and winning runs — allowed the Pirates to come back from the 3-0 deficit en route to a thrilling 4-3 victory over Zane Trace in the Division III, Region 11 Semifinals at VA Memorial Stadium.
As with the vast majority of Wheelersburg victories, there were numerous factors that allowed the Pirates to take home the victory on Thursday evening. One of the major keys, however, was how Wheelersburg avoided the big inning when Zane Trace established its early lead.
“Honestly, we were kind of dodging some bullets, and that was really the story over the first three innings of the game,” Estep said. “They had three runs on the board at that point, but it could have been many, many more. We were able to make some plays defensively, and some of them were not the easiest plays to make. Being able to limit the damage in baseball, like we were able to, allowed us to avoid the big inning, and in tournament baseball, that is so important.”
That was especially the case in the second and third innings of play, when Zane Trace threatened to push the game out of reach in the opening innings.
In the top half of the second inning, Ryan Winans’ single with one out in the frame allowed Josh McCorkle to move Winans to third with his double to left center field. Chad Ison then singled in McCorkle to move the Pioneers’ lead to a 1-0 tally after two complete innings.
As the third inning commenced, Zane Trace proceeded to add more runs to its total as a leadoff triple by Camden Farley allowed Issac Beam to drive in Farley with his RBI base knock. Winans then added a two-out base knock later in the same frame to score Beam and push the lead to a 3-0 tally after three innings of play.
“We knew that Zane Trace was going to be a challenge offensively,” Estep said. “We were going to have to mix pitching speeds and things, because a Ron Allen-led team is always able to pound fastballs and things. Through the first couple of innings, we had some balls that were hit pretty hard. Zane Trace strung a few hits together and were doing the things that they needed to do.”
But even in those innings, the Pirates came up big with huge forceouts that helped keep the Pioneers from establishing complete control.
And as he got comfortable, Carter proved to be spot-on over the remaining frames of action.
In fact, following the third frame, the sophomore — who has starred at the leadoff spot for Wheelersburg all year long — only allowed one base hit after the third inning of action.
“Trey came in and stabilized the game for us,” Estep said. “I felt that he pitched really well, especially in the fourth, fifth, and sixth inning. A couple of their kids put together some good at-bats by fouling off some pitches and making him throw a few more. Overall, his fastball command was really good, and he was able to mix a breaking ball and a changeup in there to keep Zane Trace off balance.”
And Carter did this despite not being thrown into pitching duty throughout the postseason up to this point.
But Estep trusted his confident and poised youngster.
“Trey’s a competitor,” Estep said. “He’s pitched in big games all of his life. He’s been one of the main arms in that sophomore class, from Little League into travel ball, and all the way up. He’s not a stranger to big moments. I know that he welcomed it, and last night, he certainly went out there and backed it up with his performance. He did a good job of pitching to contact, hitting his spots, and getting ahead so that we could dictate the types of pitches that we would throw in certain counts. He was just going out and executing them. That’s exactly what we needed in order to stabilize the game.”
With Carter rolling on the mound, it was only a matter of time before Wheelersburg began to grind away at the lead.
After getting a run back on a stolen base by Dyer, an error, and a wild pitch that allowed the third baseman to score in the second inning, Jalen Miller’s double to right center and a 5-3 groundout by Xander Carmichael allowed Darnell to follow suit in the bottom of the third frame by bringing in Dyer with his sacrifice fly to center field to cut the lead to a 3-2 score by the end of the third frame.
“Earlier on, Cole Darnell, when it was a 3-1 game, battled through his at-bat and things, and ended up hitting a ball very well to center field for a sacrifice fly. All of the sudden, it’s 3-2 again, and if you’re able to get a guy on with less than two outs, you’re able to continually put pressure on the defense at that point.”
But while Carter continued to roll on the mound in the innings following the scoring outburst, Jeremy Brooks settled in for Zane Trace, as well. Brooks matched Carter’s flawless third, fourth, and fifth frames on the hill by also facing just one above the minimum as the Pioneers maintained a 3-2 lead heading into the closing stages of the contest.
“Jeremy Brooks of Zane Trace did a great job of keeping us off balance,” Estep said. “We were getting under balls too much and lifting them. When you’re doing that during a tournament game, you’re making it easy for the defense because all they have to do is to go catch a popup or a flyball … You want to make the defense make two plays, and at least seven or eight times last night, they just had to catch the ball. That’s not what we want to do, but even through that, we persevered, and that’s what I was most proud of. It wasn’t going exactly the way that we drew it up, but we kept grinding it out, kept fighting, and finally, in that sixth inning, we were able to bunch a couple of hits together, run the bases well, and get back on top entering the seventh inning.”
However, as they have so many times before, Wheelersburg managed to persevere.
Darnell, who was critical all game long from the cleanup position, got the rally started with his double to left center field, and Dyer, who has continued to improve all season long, came up with a critical one-out single to tie the score after a passed ball allowed Darnell to move up to third.
But Wheelersburg didn’t just settle for a tie game.
After another one-out single by Connor Mullins to move Dyer to score and a walk by Brandon Denney to load the bases with two gone, a passed ball — and a great reaction from Dyer — allowed the Pirates to grab the only lead that they’d need to take over the course of the ballgame.
“It just comes down to the little things in those close games,” Estep said. “Laying a bunt down in certain situations or reading a ball in the dirt may seem small, but those qualities are very critical. When we scored our first run to tie the game, Cole Dyer got a great jump on a ball that did not go all the way to the backstop. It may have went eight to 10 feet from the catcher, but because his feet were ready and his momentum was going in the right direction as the pitch went by, he was able to turn over and score. If your feet are dead and the ball’s crossing home plate, maybe you’re not able to score in that situation. We have really tried to emphasize those little things to our guys, from making sure our feet are ready to reading balls in the dirt. That’s super important, especially when you can’t straight-steal a base.”
With the victory, the Pirates will move on to the Division III, Region 11 Finals, which will be played at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. There, Wheelersburg will look to take down Division III’s No. 1-ranked opponent in Berlin Hiland, who defeated Martins Ferry by a 10-0 count in six innings on Friday evening in Minerva.
“When you get to this point, you always know that it’s going to be a big-time challenge,” Estep said. “However, that’s what you expect, and that’s what you want. To think that you’re just going to get what you want, while playing middle-of-the-road baseball, is just not the case. I like where we are. Berlin Hiland is a great ballclub. We’re looking forward to the opportunity, and hopefully, our guys can come out, prepare, trust each other, and find a way to collect a good outcome tomorrow.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7