MINFORD — Teams who don’t quit regardless of the circumstance will always come out better for the wear in the end.
For the past 13 years, that’s how the Wheelersburg Pirates’ baseball program has been able to claim SOC II Championships in the sport of baseball — and become the statewide power that it is known as today.
On Friday evening, however, the Minford Falcons’ baseball program showed that Wheelersburg isn’t the only program that has a never-say-die attitude.
Down by three runs in the fourth inning of play, Minford proceeded to rally back as the Falcons and the Pirates duked it out in another sensational SOC II duel between the pair.
And in that duel, it was the youngest player on the field who came up with the biggest hit of the contest.
With the score deadlocked at an 8-8 tie, an error and a sacrifice allowed Nathan McCormick to sprint to third base as the potential game-winning run.
The nine-hole hitter, Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis, didn’t disappoint the home crowd. His lined shot to left field dropped in front of a diving attempt by Athan Temponeras to send McCormick on home and send the Minford fans into a frenzy as the Falcons claimed a 9-8 victory over the Pirates on Friday evening in a bout to even the season series between the pair as the heated race for the 2018 SOC II crown marches on.
For Aaron Hopper, the contest was all about his unit’s refusal to lose.
“If there’s one kid that’s young that I have confidence in to step up in that situation and get the job done — and I’m not saying that I don’t have confidence in the other guys — Elijah’s that guy,” Hopper said of Vogelsong-Lewis’ game-winning base hit. “He’s a real competitor for us. He’s a special kid and a special player, and I couldn’t be happier for him, especially after losing a tough one at their place. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I can’t be more proud of the entire team. We told the guys (after the game), ‘It’s a team effort.’ It doesn’t get better, from a team baseball standpoint, than this. From bunting and stealing to making the routine plays, we did what we needed to do in all areas to win this ballgame. It’s really special.”
As for Michael Estep, the veteran leader of the Pirates believed that the energy that Minford displayed, and their willingness to continue to fight — much like Wheelersburg has done throughout its special run — was a critical component in the overall result.
“In a big game situation, they’re not going to quit, because that’s a bunch over there that plays with spirit and enthusiasm,” They didn’t quit (Wednesday at Wheelersburg) and played right to the end. It’s a credit to their coaching staff as far as keeping those guys engaged for seven innings is concerned. We just weren’t up to the task today. It’s a credit to them, and they deserve the credit for the victory.”
From the outset, both teams proved to be up to the task at the plate. Wheelersburg’s Cole Dyer, again, continued his massive hot streak as the senior belted a solo shot with two outs in the top of the first inning to put the Pirates up by a 1-0 count, but Minford immediately countered with two runs of its own in the bottom half of the opening inning. A walk and a stolen base by Brayden Davis allowed Darius Jordan to drive in the former to tie the score. Jordan was caught on a baserunning error, but a drawn walk by Luke Lindamood was followed by a two-out triple by Reid Shultz as the Falcons jumped out in front after an inning of play.
Wheelersburg, however, came right back with a big surge of momentum. A leadoff double in the top of the second by Connor Mullins allowed Temponeras to bring in the former with his RBI single as Wheelersburg tied the score at two apiece after two innings of work.
When Minford answered back with an RBI single from Lindamood to score Jordan, and retake the lead by a 3-2 margin, after three innings of play, the Pirates countered with two runs apiece in the fourth and fifth to spearheaded the contest’s fourth lead change — with Mullins and Temponeras continuing to do the primary damage.
Another leadoff double by the former allowed the latter to score Mullins with a second double to the outfield, and, after a sacrifice bunt by Jaydren Guthrie, Jarrett Stamper followed with a productive one-out sacrifice fly to the outfield to score Temponeras. One-out base hits from Jalen Miller, Dyer, Xander Carmichael, and Mullins all followed in the fifth as Wheelersburg took a 6-3 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth inning.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win from an offensive standpoint,” Estep said. “We hit a number of balls right on the button that Minford made some plays on. I don’t have any qualms with how we performed in that area. The only statistic that we need to try to clean up, and it’s tough to do it in baseball, is to refrain from leaving people on base. But when you’re scoring six, eight, 10 runs against pretty good defenses and guys that throw strikes and things, you’d like to think that you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win. We certainly did that today, but we just needed to clean it up on the defensive end. We just didn’t get it done.”
And that’s because Minford never let up from an intensity standpoint.
With one out in the bottom of the fifth inning, Jordan again got things rolling from the two-hole by notching a base knock, then stealing a base, which allowed the ever-productive Lindamood to drive the speedster in with a double to the outfield. Two batters later, Shultz followed with another productive at bat as the utility player singled home Lindamood to bring Minford within a 6-5 tally as the trio — who combined to go 7-for-12 at the dish with two doubles, a triple, seven RBI, and four runs scored — spearheaded the Falcons’ assault.
The offensive explosion on the home side, however, was just beginning.
After a leadoff walk by Bailey Rowe and a single by Vogelsong-Lewis, Brayden Davis came up huge at the top of the order by notching a single to score Rowe to knot the score again at six. That was followed by an even larger base hit from Darius, who immediately followed Davis’ efforts by punching his own double into the outfield to score Vogelsong-Lewis and Davis to give the Falcons the lead back as Minford scored five unanswered runs in a thrilling fashion en route to grabbing an 8-5 advantage after six innings of work.
And that, according to Hopper, was all about the confidence that Minford had going into the game due to its own work and preparation.
“We talk about that a lot,” Hopper said. “We know that we put the time in just as much as, if not moreso, than anybody else here. We’re running in the offseason, lifting in the offseason, drilling hard during practice, and it’s paying off. I hope that these kids see that. It’s more than just playing out here for seven innings. It’s everything that you do in between that matters the most.”
And with Minford hitting the ball as well as it has been, those walks to Davis and Lindamood in the first inning, along with Jordan in the third frame and Rowe in the sixth, proved to be a big factor, as well.
“We talked about how it was going to be a grind over three days,” Estep said. “We hoped that we would play a little bit better, but watching Minford swing the bat the other day and things, we know that just seeing each of them come up to the plate in a regular at-bat is challenging enough, let alone when we’re giving them free passes. We walked eight batters in the game, and when that many guys in the lineup can run, it’s tough to put your defense in those situations, and unfortunately, half of those runs scored. We walked eight, four of them scored. And we had opportunities where we executed some plays defensively to put ourselves in a position to steal some outs on some pickoffs and things, and we just didn’t execute those. It’s unfortunate.”
In the top of the seventh inning, Wheelersburg, as they have done many times before, battled back once again. Back-to-back singles by Carter and Miller opened the door for Dyer, who seemingly shut it with authority via a three-run home run to put Wheelersburg back in front.
There was one problem with that, however — it wasn’t a three-run home run.
On his way around the bases following the home run, Dyer — who went 3-for-3 on the day in another strong outing at the plate — missed touching home plate, and was ruled out, which meant that only Carter and Miller scored as Dyer was given a triple. This play ultimately ended up proving to be huge as Bailey Rowe came on in relief after a walk to Carmichael and, after giving up a double to Mullins, shut the door without allowing Carmichael to score from third as the Falcons kept the game deadlocked at eight heading to the bottom of the seventh.
And when an error was committed in the infield, along with a sacrifice, Vogelsong-Lewis — who has proven to be poised beyond his years — was able to deliver with that lined shot to left that had players firing out of the dugout to greet McCormick or Vogelsong-Lewis.
“Bailey really shut the door there for us and did an excellent job working out of potential trouble when he came on (in the seventh),” Hopper said. “There’s things that we could’ve done better. Our baserunning was suspect at times. We had a couple of blunders on the basepaths that cost us a few runs, and we missed some spots on the mound, but a win’s a win, especially against Wheelersburg, who’s at the top of our conference, and everybody competed and fought tooth-and-nail to get it done.”
But it’s the understanding of the roles that each guy plays that has allowed Minford to get the job done.
“I can’t say enough about this team,” Hopper said. “It’s a great group of guys, and they fight hard for each other. The dugout was up the whole time, even though we were down three runs there in the middle innings. We could’ve fell flat, but we stayed up and continued to push through. We had preseason meetings where we tell guys what their roles are on the team. Sometimes, it’s not what they want to hear. Nobody likes to hear the fact that you’re not going to get a lot of innings or you’re going to be a role player for us, but we, as a staff, believe that everybody has a role on this team. If you’re in here for seven innings or if you’re out in the field for seven innings, there’s a role to be played. These guys have bought into their roles, and I’m telling you right now, teams where kids buy into their roles are a lot more powerful than those that don’t. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
“If you expect to be a championship-caliber team,” Estep said, “you can’t make mistakes in big situations and in big games. It’s just something that every team goes through and has to grow from, and it’s something that we hope that, over the course of the season, that we do grow from. That’s one thing about these guys — they’ve always been resilient. We’ve lost games before, and each time, it’s not been about what happened, it’s been about how to respond from the setback. We’ll see what kind of response that they have.”
With the victory, Minford improved to 10-1 on the year and 7-1 in SOC II action. The Falcons have another big series upcoming on Monday and Wednesday when the Falcons travel to, and host, Waverly on Monday and Wednesday, respectively — one that could go a long way in deciding the fate of the Falcons, the Pirates, and the Tigers in the SOC II race.
“We’ve got to enjoy this one for a little bit, then make sure that when we put our heads on the pillow, that we start thinking ahead to Waverly,” Hopper said. “They’re a tough team. They came up here last year and beat us at our place, then finished off a sweep at their place late in the game. We’ve got to realize that good teams win late, and we want to be that good team that wins late, like we did (on Friday).”
As for Wheelersburg, the Pirates, who set with a 5-3 overall mark and a 5-1 record in conference play, will look to rebound against Hillsboro in a doubleheader on Saturday afternoon. It’s a group that will have to show resiliency, as it has done many times before.
“There’s some guys on that bus that have been through some wars with us over the last few years here, and I expect that, if we get to play (on Saturday) against Hillsboro, we’ll show up and be ready to play,” Estep said. “That’s all you can do. We tip our hats to Minford today, and we’ll try to play better baseball tomorrow.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT