PORTSMOUTH — As of Saturday, the boys of summer for Portsmouth Post 23 are officially back on the diamond.
Now, naturally, comes the challenge of putting pitching, hitting and fielding together to win its grueling gauntlet of games.
The Post 23 Senior baseball team, unfortunately, found itself on the wrong end of a doubleheader sweep on Saturday inside Branch Rickey Park —losing against Ashland Post 76 8-6 in the opener and 9-2 in the nightcap.
The contests marked the summer openers for Post 23, which is scheduled for a frenzy of an estimated 30-plus games in almost 40 days.
It is playing “an independent season following American Legion Baseball rules and guidelines”, and there will be a two-day region tournament in late-July (July 19-22) to close the campaign out.
Thus, this six-week stretch of June and July will be busy —barring rainouts — beyond belief, as first-year head coach and Shawnee State University player Drew Lowe said just getting back to practicing and playing baseball is an enormous relief.
“It’s a great feeling to be on a baseball field and play the game we all love,” said Lowe. “That’s how the kids are looking at it, that’s how I am looking at it. It’s an honor and a privilege to be out here especially with Post 23. It’s going to be a fun summer and it’s great to get going.”
For the players, you better believe it is.
In response to the coronavirus threat, the Ohio High School Athletic Association cancelled this past season —as its mandatory no-contact period for baseball and ALL sports originally extended thru May 31.
At the American Legion level, the cancellation dominoes fell their way backwards — as in early April the 2020 American Legion World Series and all eight regional tournaments announced their cancellations.
A month later, on May 4, the Ohio American Legion announced it was cancelling its annual state and region tournaments.
That left ANY Legion season, or any independent league, in severe limbo for the summer — but as part of his “Responsible Restart Ohio” plan, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced on May 21 that any “low contact” or “non contact” sports can begin as of Tuesday, May 26.
Baseball obviously qualifies as such, and that prompted a pair of tweets from the Post 23 account, citing “that’s a great thing for summer baseball”.
Indeed, Post 23 wanted to sponsor summer baseball — and succeeded in doing so.
The Senior team consists of all but two players from Scioto County —as those two men, Seth Nichols and Logan Hankins, hail from Rock Hill.
Nichols is the only member of the club which graduated in 2019, as all others —except Wheelersburg junior to-be Hunter Thomas — are either newly-graduated seniors or seniors in the upcoming, or rather impending, academic year.
There are seven Wheelersburg Pirates plus four Clay Panthers, along with two Valley Indians and one Portsmouth West Senator.
On Saturday, Post 23 played without four players — Hankins and the Clay trio of Reece Whitley, Caleb McNutt and expected ace pitcher Dakota Dodds.
In both games, a pair of six-run innings doomed Post 23, as Ashland rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the first tilt — scoring six earned runs on six hits in the fourth.
In the fifth, Ashland added two more runs on three more hits off Thomas, who was the losing pitcher and who relieved starter Elias Robson the frame before.
Post 76 scored eight unanswered runs to go ahead 8-5, thanks to a two-run single by Jackson Feltner — as the first of those two runs was Ashland’s only unearned.
Ashland outhit Portsmouth 13-6, as Post 23 —which plated four hits through its initial seven at-bats —didn’t collect a single basehit for a stretch of 14 batters from the second thru the sixth.
Post 76 threw six separate pitchers in the lid-lifter —with each working at least one inning.
“Ashland has some really good arms to start, and seeing live pitching is going to be a process this summer for us. More reps we get, that’s what it’s going to come to,” said Lowe. “Being able to hit the ball as a team, figuring out how the lineup gels throughout the summer, limited pitch counts right now, not having that spring season and jumping into summer ball, it’s all going to be a trick to solve. I think the hitting is going to come, and we had some big hits at times today, but then we left a lot of runners on.”
Post 23 stranded nine men in the first game to be exact —seven of which were in scoring position.
That included runners on second and third in the fifth and bases loaded in the sixth, as Ashland relievers Rony Mills (fifth) and Zach Francis (sixth) got inning-ending strikeouts to end those threats.
“One of my focus points with the kids is that we can’t leave runners on in scoring position,” said Lowe. “That comes on me too, though, figuring out how the lineup is going to gel together and who works well in what situations.”
In the sixth, Mason Montgomery doubled for Post 23 and scored on an Ashland error to trim the deficit to 8-6, but the Seniors could get no closer.
Ethan Ison, who singled to lead off the second, doubled off the left-centerfield wall in the seventh —but Francis finished things off by retiring the next three batters to gain the save.
Mills (11 batters faced) and Ronin Moore (nine batters faced) both pitched an inning and two-thirds for Post 76, as Moore managed the official win.
Post 23 took advantage of walks to Jaden Jessee, Braden Harr and Nichols in the third, along with a pair of wild pitches to score twice and lead 5-0.
In the first, Jessee walked and Harr singled, as Cade McNeil drove in both with a single combined with an error in center field.
Nichols then doubled in McNeil for a 3-0 lead, but Ashland excellently executed an outfield relay throw — and nailed Nichols trying for the slide-in triple.
In the second outing, which lasted just five innings via coaches agreement ahead-of-time, Ashland amounted a run in the second on a double, an error and a balk —before crossing twice more in the fourth thanks to a walk, two more errors and a wild pitch.
It then opened the floodgates again with six runs on four more hits and two more errors in the fifth —including Francis’ two-run double and Moore’s two-run single.
Of Ashland’s nine second-game markers, only two were earned.
Portsmouth posted five hits in the back half — including an Ison leadoff single in the second and a Jessee one-out double in the fourth.
Ashland’s Neshawn Peppers pitched his way out of a one-out bases-loaded jam in the second, then Feltner retired seven of the opening eight Portsmouth batters he faced from the third thru the fifth.
Trailing 9-0 at that point, Post 23 got a one-out single from Harr, Andrew Andronis drew a walk and Blake Wood sprinted out an infield hit to load the bases — as Chase Conley plated Harr and Andronis for the home team’s two runs.
Less than 24 hours after the sweep, Post 23 returned home for yet another doubleheader — against Chillicothe on Sunday.
The squad travels for another twinbill on Tuesday — at Hillsboro Post 129 (5:30 p.m. first pitch).
Indeed, it’s a grueling gauntlet of games, but Lowe said that he and his players are more than up to the challenge of pitching, hitting and fielding — and just playing baseball once again.
“The kids have bought into the fact it’s going be a summer of 35 games in 40 days. But reps every day is our focus point,” said the coach. “It’s the opportunity for them to play this year, and hopefully, eventually, everything is going to start clicking.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved