WHEELERSBURG — Sometimes, a lineup adjustment is necessary to spark a unit from an offensive standpoint.
With a litany of right and left-handed hitters at its disposal, the veteran leader of the Wheelersburg Pirates’ baseball program, Michael Estep, and his coaching staff moved strong contact hitting upperclassmen Connor Mullins and Jaydren Guthrie — who have each had strong seasons to date — up in the order in an effort to bust up their lefties and righties.
And so far, the new lineup looks like it will be a major problem to deal with in the games ahead.
Cole Dyer blasted his 15th home run of the season to move within two long balls away from tying the school’s home run record, Guthrie and Evan Dahm combined for five RBI, and Wheelersburg followed up its impressive 5-3 victory over Unioto by collecting nine hits over the first four innings of play in a 10-2 victory over the Chesapeake Panthers’ baseball program on Saturday afternoon in a Division III, Chillicothe II Sectional Championship bout that was held in Wheelersburg.
For Estep, the offensive burst was exactly what the doctor ordered.
“That’s exactly what you want to be able to do in a tournament game,” Estep said. “It breaks the ice a little bit. You can come out, score some runs early, and allow your pitcher to go out there and pitch with the lead. That’s exactly what the doctor ordered for the first tournament game. Every one of them presents a new challenge and things that you haven’t faced so far at this juncture. We’ve had some sectional championship games before where we’ve come here and had a 2-0, 3-0 lead. Fortunately, we’ve been able to come out and swing the bats today, which got us off to a good start.”
From the opening pitch of Saturday’s contest against Chesapeake, the Pirates came out firing on all cylinders offensively against the Panthers as Mullins and Cole Dyer followed with back-to-back singles that put runners on first and second base with one out in the inning.
Even though Chesapeake was able to obtain a 6-4 forceout to obtain the second out of the inning, a wild pitch allowed Mullins to score and Guthrie followed by hustling to leg out an infield single, which moved Xander Carmichael to second base. RBI base knocks by Dahm and Jalen Miller followed that sequence as Wheelersburg quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead after an inning of play.
“We’ve kind of shuffled the order around a little bit in order to break up our right-handed and left-handed hitters,” Estep said. “It’s balanced out our order and doesn’t allow the pitcher to settle in on one side of the strike zone when the hitter’s up there and things. I was really pleased. Even though we rolled a couple of balls over down the first base side there, Jaydren got himself down the line and put pressure on the guys fielding the ball, which is exactly what we talked about at the beginning of the year. When we put the ball in play, we want the opposing defense to know that if they bobble a ball, we’ll be on base. The hustle down the line today was good.”
After eight players appeared at the plate in the opening inning for Wheelersburg, the Pirates sent eight additional hands to the dish in the second frame as Trey Carter, who was hit by a pitch and stole a base, and Dyer, who was intentionally walked, scored on a rare two-RBI infield single after Guthrie legged out his second hit down the first base side in as many innings and didn’t watch for Dyer, who sprinted around from second base to score.
Dahm then followed Guthrie with his own two-RBI single to the outfield to score Carmichael — who reached on a walk — and Guthrie, who scored from first base, as the Pirates ultimately took a 7-0 lead after two innings of play.
“We had some timely hits, and it wasn’t about when the hits were, but moreso what the guys did with them,” Estep said. “The swings weren’t reach swings. To drive those balls up the middle and backside and things shows that our guys are making some growth on the offensive side and things, and during tournament play, that’s the right time to do it.”
As Carter, who got the start and threw six innings of five-hit, two-run baseball while striking out six and only allowing one earned run to cross the plate, continued to shine, Wheelersburg continued to add to its lead.
When Chesapeake scored its first run of the contest on an error in the top half of the fourth inning of play, Wheelersburg responded in the bottom half of the fourth inning as a bunt single by Mullins was followed by a towering two-run drive to dead center by Dyer, who continued to assert himself as a force at the No. 3 slot in the order by going 2-for-3 with the home run shot, two RBI, the intentional walk in the second frame, and two runs scored in all.
Will Darling added the Pirates’ final run by launching a double off of the outfield fence to score Miller in the fifth inning to increase the Pirates’ lead to a 10-1 margin as Wheelersburg — other than a wild pitch that allowed the Panthers to add a run in the sixth — cruised home from that point on.
“Cole comes and works hard every day,” Estep said. “He maintains a consistent plate approach. I’m really proud of him and the year that he’s had. For his standards and the kind of year that he’s been having, he had a lull in a few games there, and just got himself right back in the batting cage. We talked about the approach and made sure that we weren’t trying to do too much as a hitter and things. For me to see the ball fly over the center field fence tells me that the approach that he’s taking to the plate is the right one, because he’s staying behind the ball, and that’s exactly what we’re working on in the cages every day.”
With the victory, the Pirates will get to face fellow SOC II foe Valley in a Division III, Chillicothe II District Semifinal on Friday, May 18. And with both teams splitting their regular season matchups (Valley, 9-5, April 25; Wheelersburg, 3-1; April 27), the contest figures to be yet another exciting matchup in a long line of great affairs between the two programs in all sports.
“When you get into some of these familiar games, it presents different challenges,” Estep said. “(Valley) has two different pitching charts on your hitters, and knows some of our tendencies if hitters are going to go out and face the same pitcher again. They’re going to be thinking about pitch sequences and what they faced the first time, so it becomes a little bit more of a chess match, as a coach, to try to put ourselves and our guys in a position to be successful and still be able to go out and play the game. At this point, our mindset is usually worrying about what we do, so we’ll go to work this week, hone up on some things, and have a good week of practice.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT