SLOCUM — Playing clean, crisp baseball in the field — especially when there are runners on base — will usually determine the result of who wins and who loses more often than not.
On Monday evening, that example was on full display.
With the South Webster Jeeps’ baseball program and the East Tartans’ baseball program combining for 13 errors over the course of the affair, one would think that South Webster and East played to a pretty even keel in a nonconference affair between the two programs on Monday evening.
However, South Webster committed just two of its six errors with runners on base, while East committed five of its seven misplays under the same circumstances. That point, plus a excellent two-hit performance on the hill from Caleb Cunningham, Billy Jones, and Aidan Andrews, along with four excellent defensive plays that atoned for the mistakes that the Jeeps made on the defensive side of the coin and an excellent effort from South Webster’s one-through-five hitters — who combined for seven of the Jeeps’ eight hits — allowed South Webster to grab a 12-2 victory over East in a contest that went the full seven innings in Slocum.
For Ryan McClintic, the credit goes to his youngsters for shaking off the pregame nerves and continuing to battle throughout the affair.
“There was no doubt that we had some first-game jitters out there today,” McClintic said. “You could see it. But that’s expected. Once a couple of innings got behind us, I just said, ‘Guys, it’s baseball. It’s the game that you’ve played your whole life. Just go out there and play.’ I was happy how we continued to put the ball in play. We ran the bases well, too. We left a few routine plays out there, but overall, we played gritty, tough baseball, and I’m proud of the guys for that and for continuing to play hard.”
As for Matt Miller, the seven errors that East left on the table — including six over the initial three innings of play — left the second-year leader wondering what could’ve been.
“Errors got us behind the eight-ball, and South Webster is a young, scrappy team,” Miller said. “They made the plays, and we didn’t. It set us back from the start, and we couldn’t dig our way out of it. We just kept digging a deeper hole.”
From the outset, South Webster took control of the affair as the Jeeps received a jolt from its one-through-five hitters. On the very first pitch of the affair, Gabe Ruth took a chest-high fastball from East’s Brayden Queen and sent it to left field, resulting in a double. Braden Martin sacrificed Ruth over to third on the very next pitch, and two pitches later, Jacob Ruth poked a ball through the right side en route to driving Gabe Ruth home. A stolen base by Jacob Ruth, an infield error, and an RBI single by Caleb Cunningham ultimately allowed South Webster to take a 3-0 lead after a half-inning of work.
The opening inning effort, however, was only the beginning for the quartet. The aforementioned names, along with Braden Bockway, ultimately combined to reach base in 13 of their 20 appearances at the plate during the contest — or, in other words, a whopping 65 percent of their at-bats.
“We’ll take that each and every night if we can,” McClintic said. “We know that in the game of baseball, we can’t count on that at all times. We’re just trying to do the little things. We obviously lost a lot of offensive firepower from last year, so we’re just preaching to the guys to find a way to get on base. We’re not going up there with the mindset to just get a hit. We’re trying to work pitchers and we’re trying to extend the pitch counts for the other team. By doing that, it’ll help ourselves. I told our guys, ‘Don’t worry about batting averages. We’re trying to move guys over and just make things happen on the basepaths in any way possible.’”
In the bottom half of the first, however, East — after an excellent catch by Dallas Copas robbed Dylan Bailey of a base hit — got going. A two-out double by Tyler Winston allowed Brayden Queen to effectively drive his classmate in from his cleanup spot by knocking a single through the middle of the infield as the Tartans cut the lead to 3-1 after an inning of play.
But after a clean second inning, errors reared their ugly head for East in the third frame. Five infield errors, a stolen base by Jacob Ruth, and an RBI single by Bockway ultimately allowed South Webster to plate three additional runs as the Jeeps took a 6-1 advantage.
“When they had errors, we didn’t have anybody on base, and when we made errors, there were runners on base,” Miller said. “We shot ourselves in the foot as far as that goes, but its Game No. 1 of 26. We’ll keep plugging along, and hopefully tomorrow (against Ironton St. Joseph) will be a different result.”
Ruth, who proved to be a terror all evening for the Jeeps, reached base in each of his four trips to the plate while going 2-for-3 for the contest. The junior added a walk, an RBI, three stolen bases, and four runs scored to allow South Webster to take full advantage of what the East defense gave it on the evening. In addition to his play at the three-hole, Ruth made several nice blocks on potential wild pitches that could’ve allowed the Tartans to cut into the Jeeps’ lead later on in the affair.
“We’ve asked a lot of Jacob, and that’s not only been the case this year, but throughout his varsity career,” McClintic said. “In his three years with us, we’ve had him at multiple positions. At tournament time last year, we switched him from the middle infield to third base, and now we’ve got him behind the plate. He’s doing a great job, and that’s par for the course for him because we’ve seen that from him over the last two years. He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid, and he’ll do anything you ask him to do at 110 percent. He’s really seeing the ball well and he’s been seeing the ball well all year. He’s been really working hard during the winter, even in basketball, getting plenty of cuts in. He just eats it up and wants to get better, and that really showed with his performance (on Monday).”
The six errors over the initial three innings stymied what was otherwise a strong performance on the hill by Brayden Queen, who threw three efficient innings by striking out five, walking none, and giving up just two earned runs (both in the first inning) before departing due to a high pitch count.
“I’m happy with all three of my pitchers,” Miller said. “Brayden threw the ball well. He threw strikes; we just didn’t field the ball behind him. Tommy (Lambert) came in there and threw strikes, and he hadn’t even been on the mound yet during the year because he’s been catching all of our pitchers as our primary catcher. I was pleased with him. Then Tyler came in, threw about 10 pitches, and got a couple of outs.”
While East was ultimately able to get on the board again behind a hit batsman, an error, and a 6-4 RBI groundout from Lambert en route to cutting the South Webster lead to 6-2, the Tartans never got any closer as Caleb Cunningham, Billy Jones, and Aidan Andrews each showed great promise on the mound. Overall, the pair combined for 10 strikeouts while holding the Tartans to just two hits for the contest — an impressive showing especially considering that all three were seeing the first significant action of their varsity careers.
“Caleb, Billy, and Aidan did a fantastic job on the mound for us,” McClintic said. “I’ve just told all of our guys, ‘It’s going to be a all-hands-on-deck approach on the mound this year.’ All three of those guys really embraced that today. To hold East to just two hits is impressive. We’re going to have to use multiple pitchers on most nights and grind games out. It’s never going to be pretty, but we take pride in playing gritty baseball. That’s our motto, and the guys take to that.”
It also helped that South Webster received key efforts from Copas and Gabe Ruth in the outfield. The former made two diving catches on baseballs that were tagged hard by Bailey and Justin Kritzwiser in the first and third frames, while the latter robbed Queen of a base hit in the fifth inning with an equally strong diving catch.
Martin then added an excellent snag from his shortstop position by robbing Bailey of a base hit on a ball hit right at him, and alertly fired to first for a six-unassisted-to-three double play to get the Jeeps out of the sixth inning unscathed. South Webster ultimately added six additional runs onto its 6-2 lead between the fifth through seventh innings, with Gabe Ruth and Bockway collecting RBI base knocks to close the deal. Each of the latter pair also added a pair of hits while combining for three RBI in the contest.
“We made several really nice plays in the outfield that really were the momentum changers in the game,” McClintic said. “Early on there, they got a run back here and there, and the game still wasn’t in hand. Those catches were what gave us the momentum to continue to push through and eventually extend our lead.”
“We hit the ball at times, but we didn’t get the hits that we needed in key situations,” Miller said. “Then the errors just killed us. South Webster made some really good defensive plays. I know that with Ryan, it doesn’t matter that they’re young. They’re going to be scrappy and they’re going to work hard.”
With the victory, South Webster (1-0) will turn its attention to Wellston, whom they played on Tuesday at 5 p.m. The Jeeps follow that matchup with a contest at West on Wednesday, which kicks off the OVC portion of its schedule. The entire 22-game slate, however, is one that McClintic expects to have a lot of fun with.
“This is a fun group,” McClintic said. “What they lack for in experience, they make up for in hard work. They really do.”
As for East (0-1), the Tartans will have to regroup quickly. East played Ironton St. Joseph on Tuesday and will face an improved Symmes Valley program in Willow Wood on Wednesday to start its SOC I schedule.
“We’re just going to have to come back and be ready to play,” Miller said. “There were seven errors that I could remember, so we didn’t help ourselves. We didn’t do the little things that we needed to do to win.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT