WHEELERSBURG — In order to compete at the highest of levels, a team must have a set identity.
And on Wednesday evening, two SOC II units — who each clearly have their identities figured out — clashed in another exciting baseball battle that went back-and-forth throughout the early stages of the conference tilt.
However, while both units certainly executed in the short game and the long game, it was the Wheelersburg Pirates’ baseball program who managed to stay a step ahead of the Minford Falcons’ baseball program as the game wore on.
In an evenly matched contest where both teams combined for 24 hits, a gutsy two-way performance by Cole Dyer — which included a three-run homer — and key plays from several individuals, including two gamechanging plays by Will Darling — ultimately proved to make all the difference as Wheelersburg collected a 9-6 victory over Minford in an exciting bout that was played in Wheelersburg on Wednesday evening.
For Michael Estep, the game was exactly what he expected it to be — a dogfight.
“Minford can swing the bat,” Estep said. “We knew from the scores against some of the quality teams that they’ve played and things, that they can score eight, 10, 12 runs in just about every game, so we knew that we were going to be in for a battle. Fortunately, we got a nice day, and were able to get out here and see a couple of good teams go at it, so the game itself went as it should, with a very polished pitcher going up against a young lefty on the mound that competed.”
And in this 50-50 ballgame, it was three crucial defensive errors, along with a baserunning miscue, that proved to cost Minford.
“We tell these guys all the time that we have to make sure that we field the baseball cleanly, do things right, and refrain from making mental errors,” Hopper said. “The errors cost us tonight with the bases loaded and stuff like that. It is what it is. We’re still pretty young, and we’re going to learn from it. We just gave (Wheelersburg) way too many second chances, and it cost us.”
From the outset, the game proved to be a back-and-forth affair in terms of momentum. Minford immediately hit the board first as Brayden Davis’ single and stolen base allowed Ethan Lauder to single home Davis with his shot to left field as the Falcons took a 1-0 advantage. Wheelersburg, however, responded immediately with two runs in the bottom of the initial frame as a leadoff double to left by Trey Carter allowed Dyer to bring in the junior. A single by Xander Carmichael then moved Dyer to third, and a sacrifice fly RBI by Connor Mullins allowed the Pirates to take a 2-1 lead after an inning of play.
Minford (9-1, 6-1), however, was unfazed. Back-to-back-to-back singles by Nathan McCormick, Bailey Rowe, and Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis allowed McCormick to score, and a balk allowed Rowe to score as Minford ultimately came back with two runs of its own to take the lead back.
“Offensively, we couldn’t have done much more,” Hopper said. “Luke had the big hit late for us, Bailey Rowe had a couple of great push bunts, and top to bottom, the entire lineup put together great at-bats. Our approach at the plate was excellent tonight. I can’t complain too much at all.”
However, Wheelersburg (5-2, 5-0) proved to be poised in its own right.
With the bases loaded, Minford’s Luke Lindamood blasted a shot that looked like it would score two down the third base line. But like it was a can of corn, Will Darling snagged the hard-hit shot without much trouble and simply stepped on the third base bag for the frame-ending unassisted double play to get Dyer out of the bases loaded jam.
Darling, however, made quintessential Wheelersburg plays throughout the duration of the affair. The third baseman not only recorded the unassisted double play in the second, but also recorded two critical sacrifice bunts — one of which helped move Athan Temponeras over and allowed Carter to single Temponeras home — and, after being moved to second base when Mullins came on in relief of Dyer in the seventh inning, helped turn a 6-4-3 double play that got the former off on the right foot.
“That was a rally-killer at that point,” Estep said of Darling’s unassisted double play. “They have the bases loaded, and (Lindamood) hit the ball hard, it just happened to be right at Will. That’s the tough bounces of baseball sometimes, because if that ball gets down the line, then all of a sudden, they’ve scored two more runs, and at that point, they’d be pretty excited over there at that point. We were fortunate in that situation. Will made a great play and he did do some good things in terms of moving guys around with the short game today and turning a big double play there after switching from third base to second base when Connor came on in relief of Cole. That was a tone-setter in the seventh inning, and made it more challenging for Minford to come back.”
Then, the Pirates responded with their own counterpunch offensively. A leadoff single by Temponeras, a hit by pitch, and an error allowed Temponeras to score, then Dyer, with two outs in the inning and runners on the corners, blasted a three-run homer over the left center field fence to cap off a four run second frame as Wheelersburg took a 6-3 lead on the fourth lead change in as many innings. The two-out base knock to right field by Carter that scored Temponeras, which came in the following inning, allowed Wheelersburg took a 7-4 lead after three innings of work.
Dyer, who proved to be rock solid for the Pirates all game long, was strong at the plate as the senior led Wheelersburg by going 2-for-3 with a walk, four RBI — including the three-run homer — and three runs scored. The senior battled through adversity on the hill as well, surviving six full innings where all six Minford runs proved to be earned by striking out four batters and obtaining four additional groundball outs.
“Our guys, in terms of being able to play the short game and the long game, and pushing people into scoring position while finding a way to obtain timely hits, did a good job,” Estep said. “Cole had the home run there in the early part of the game that extended the lead, and we were able to tack on some runs around that. That always makes you happy as a coach when your players aren’t resting on the laurels of one big swing. You’ve got to find ways to manufacture runs, so we try to perform in both areas. We work hard at it, and our guys came out and executed.”
But Minford never quit.
After reaching base via a walk, Vogelsong-Lewis — who threw five solid innings in his own right — stole a base and advanced on a passed ball and a wild pitch, respectively, to cut the Wheelersburg lead to 7-4. A baserunning miscue in the fifth inning stymied what would’ve been bases loaded opportunity for the Falcons following two-out base knocks from Nathan McCormick and Bailey Rowe — the latter being a bunt single — but Minford recovered quickly as an infield single by Brayden Davis and a sacrifice bunt by Darius Jordan in the sixth set the table for Lindamood, who hammered a two-run shot to left field that cut the Pirates’ lead to a 7-6 tally as the bottom of the sixth approached.
For the contest, the top three of Brayden Davis, Jordan, and Lindamood were outstanding, as Davis (2-for-3, walk, stolen base, two runs scored), Lindamood (1-for-4, home run, two RBI, run scored), and Jordan (1-for-3, sacrifice bunt, stolen base) were more than successful at moving runners over and driving them in in their own right. Lauder (2-for-4, RBI), along with Rowe and McCormick, who each went 3-for-4 at the plate with a run scored, were equally so.
“I can’t say enough about those top three guys (Brayden Davis, Darius Jordan, Luke Lindamood), especially our No. 1 and No. 2 (Davis and Jordan),” Hopper said. “Brayden and Darius are, in my eyes, the fastest two kids in the SOC. You get them on, you can have them steal, and do a lot of things while they are on base. We try to do that. We get one of them on first base, and obviously, I’m moving them on the first pitch or the second pitch in order to take advantage of their speed on the basepaths and score some runs.”
“We knew that we had to keep battling because (Minford) is an energetic bunch over there, and I have a lot of respect for the young man (Hopper) that coaches that team,” Estep said. “I know that his bunch is always going to come ready to play, and when we go over there Friday, it’s going to be a battle.”
And it also helped that Vogelsong-Lewis, throughout the day, won his fair share of battles on the hill.
After giving up six runs — five earned — over the first two innings of action, the standout freshman gave his unit a chance to win the opener between the two well-respected programs by not allowing an earned run over the next three innings and only allowing two earned runs to cross the plate overall.
“Early on, I think that Elijah was up in the zone, but he had some adrenaline going, and when you’ve got a freshman on the mound against the top team in the conference, it’s going to be like that. He settled in pretty nicely in the middle innings; we just had a couple of costly errors.”
“His (Vogelsong-Lewis’) pitch count was up early in the game, and he weathered the storm there and kept himself in the game a little bit longer,” Estep said. “We just kept telling the guys, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make him work.’ To his credit, he found a way to stay in there for quite a while, and competed.”
However, Wheelersburg’s offensive march proved to be too strong.
After a leadoff single by Jalen Miller in the bottom half of the sixth, the junior advanced to second on a wild pitch, then as the middle infielder slid into third safely, got up and scampered home on an infield error following a walk to Dyer. An intentional walk to Carmichael and a single by Mullins loaded the bases for Jarrett Stamper, who came through in the six-hole by poking a ball through the left side of the infield to score Dyer.
Still, the game was far from over.
After a leadoff single by Reid Shultz, which came on another clever push bunt, Estep, knowing that the lineup was getting ready to cycle back to the top of the order, elected to make a pitching change as Mullins took the rubber. While Dyer, ever the competitor, wanted to finish the game, Estep ultimately won out.
“It’s always tough to talk to a senior in that situation, but we, as a coaching staff, had it in our minds that if Minford got a baserunner there, that was going to be the end of it. I had to be a little firm in the conversation as he went out, but I was also happy to see the competitiveness and the drive to want to stay in the game, to have the ball. That’s what you want to see as a coach. We just knew that they were getting ready to roll back to the top of the lineup. Another hitter or two, and they’re back to the top of the lineup, and those guys had seen quite a few pitches from Cole over the course of the game, so we felt like we needed to change it up.”
And the change worked like a charm. On the first batter that he saw, Mullins forced the aforementioned 6-4-3 double play, and faced smooth sailing from there as the senior closed the deal by obtaining the save, allowing just one hit in his full inning of work en route to preserving the result for the Pirates.
“Connor came in and did a good job,” Estep said. “He got a groundball right off of the bat, so that was a good way to finish the game.”
Mullins then came on for Dyer in the seventh inning after a leadoff single and obtained a 6-4-3 double play en route to obtaining the save.
With the victory, Wheelersburg could very well set itself up to create its own destiny toward a 14th straight SOC II crown. The Pirates, however, will have a tough road — a road that, while not unfamiliar, certainly will be a challenge with games at West and Minford on Thursday and Friday.
“With all of the rain at the beginning, it’s really going to test people’s pitching staffs,” Estep said when asked about the challenge of the back-to-backs. “No doubt. We talked about it in the early innings, saying, ‘Hey, let’s try to get that pitch count up and get (Vogelsong-Lewis) out of there. With these back-to-backs and things, and a solid West team with two of the better arms in the conference, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Minford, however, relishes the challenge of playing spoiler. The Falcons, off to one of their best starts in school history, get the rematch on their own home grass this time around.
“We’re going to have our hands full, and they’re going to have their hands full just the same,” Hopper said. “We’re looking forward to being able to bounce back and obtaining a good conference win.”