CHILLICOTHE — They say that baseball is a game of mere inches.
For Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis and the Minford Falcons, they had to feel a mile high, while Wheelersburg’s Pirates and Eric Green, it sure felt like falling down a hole a mile wide.
Vogelsong-Lewis’ and Green’s worlds collided, figuratively and almost literally on Thursday, on a basic bunt at-bat in the top of the third inning of their Division III Region 11 semifinal.
What resulted was a tide-turning tale which favored the Falcons — as Green got ruled out, Minford managed to get two runs in, and ultimately the Red-clad bunch made it three wins over their Southern Ohio Conference Division II archrivals.
Of course, Thursday’s triumph mattered most for Minford, which scored single runs in the third and fifth innings — en route to a hard-fought and well-played 2-0 triumph inside a rain-soaked and Scioto County-crowded VA Memorial Stadium.
That’s correct — as the Falcons once, twice, now three times have toppled the Pirates.
With the win, Minford raised its stellar record to 25-2-1, extended its amazing winning streak to 23 games — and most importantly — advanced to Saturday’s Region 11 championship game at Lancaster’s Beavers Field.
It is the Falcons’ fourth regional final appearance in five years (2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021) —following all four of their Division III district championships over the same span.
“I think the fans, the two communities, Scioto County got what they wanted to see today in a great ballgame in front of a great crowd. Two good baseball programs going at it is always awesome. Anytime you play Wheelersburg, it’s going to be a tough battle,” said Minford coach Anthony Knittel. “Hats off to them, because that’s a good program. But I’m proud of our guys, they came and stay focused through the rain delay, made the adjustments and did what we had to do. To beat a team three times in a row, we stayed with our same approach. There wasn’t anything necessarily to change about it.”
En route to capturing the outright SOC II championship, Minford muscled for wins of 6-2 and 3-0 —with Vogelsong-Lewis on the mound in both, as the Falcons swept the Pirates for the first time since the 2001 campaign.
In the regional semifinal, and even after exactly an hour rain delay in Chillicothe, Minford made good again —overcoming an immediate lost opportunity in the bottom of the second inning with runners on second and third, thanks to an Ethan Ison of Wheelersburg walk to Aodhan Queen and hitting Matthew Risner with a pitch.
A third-inning umpires’ call clearly shifted momentum Minford’s way, as it ultimately took away a Wheelersburg run —and set the stage for the Falcons’ two runs on three hits and lone but clearly costly Pirate error.
Meanwhile, Vogelsong-Lewis —the Marshall University signee — was hardly touched by the Pirates following the third.
As part of his complete-game four-hit gem, which also included a sixth-inning walk to Braden Horr and Hunter Thomas getting hit by a pitch, Vogelsong-Lewis landed a dozen strikeouts —including for all three outs around an Ison infield single and Minford’s only error in the closing seventh stanza.
In fact, Ison’s infield single was Wheelersburg’s only hit against Vogelsong-Lewis following the third.
Case Dyer and Horr had singles to left in the first inning, but between strikeouts and left-fielder Cole Borland making a spectacular catch on Cooper McKenzie’s shot, Vogelsong-Lewis left them there.
“You have to tip your cap to their left-fielder. Cooper McKenzie’s hit, anywhere else we play that ball is over the fence,” said Wheelersburg coach Derek Moore. “But Borland made a heckuva play.”
McKenzie came back with a two-out single to center and a runner on third in the third, but the Falcons forged a 6-4 fielder’s choice to erase him and end that threat.
Otherwise, Vogelsong-Lewis retired the Pirates —in facing their lineup three times through — 1-2-3 in innings two, four and five.
He then issued his two-out walk to Horr in the sixth and his two-out infield hit to Ison in the last.
But with the Falcons leading 2-0 following five, the Pirates’ late baserunners —even with the tying run at the plate twice — seemed innocuous.
Knittel spoke highly, once again, of Vogelsong-Lewis and his mastery.
Offensively, he smashed a two-out triple to the left-field gap in the third —and drew a two-out intentional walk in the fifth.
“You know what you’re going to get with Elijah. He comes out and competes and he works hard. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. He has a God-given ability for baseball, but he also works hard. He just doesn’t rely on his talent. He puts in the work,” said Knittel. “He was up early this morning hitting and getting a lift in. He is a guy that gets up and gets after it and covers all the little things. He is a leader with great character on and off the field. I’m proud of and tickled to death for that kid.”
Although, it was the at-bat Vogelsong-Lewis was involved in as a fielder that fans from Thursday will remember most.
After he hit Thomas to lead off the third, Green stepped in and put down a beautiful bunt along the first-base line.
The left-handed Vogelsong-Lewis went to his left to field the ball, but struggled to gain control —and the play initially resulted in the ball being thrown away.
However, the umpires ruled that Green had interfered on his dash down the line — and was too far from the baseline and too close to the infield.
Green was called out, and Thomas’ pinch-runner — Max Hagans — had to go back to first base from second.
Naturally, both coaches saw it from differing perspectives.
“Supposedly, Eric (Green) was too far in the baseline towards the pitcher. We’ve had that called on us one time this year, but I knew he had 45 feet to get back in baseline. That was my whole reasoning, that if he got back in baseline then he should be okay. But the umpire said he never did,” said Moore. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s a huge call. We would be up 1-0 and all the momentum instead of being down 1-0. And with Elijah (Vogelsong-Lewis), he is the type of arm that if you give him one run, he can pretty much shut you down from there.”
“They (umpires) have been real strict on that 45-degree foot rule. You have to stay on this basepath and you can’t go inside. We’ve had it called on us a couple times this season,” said Knittel. “Today it gave us a little momentum and it took a run away from them.”
Indeed it did.
Had Hagans remained at second, he likely would have scored on McKenzie’s single —but instead only got to third, as Green was the first out of the inning followed by Vogelsong-Lewis striking out Dyer for the second out.
Horr then hit into the aforementioned fielder’s choice, and the Falcons found a newfound energy as a result of escaping that Pirate threat.
In the bottom half, bottom hitter Mason Book drew a leadoff walk —then Ison compounded his compromising situation by throwing a pickoff attempt into right field for an error.
Book took third on the failed pickoff, and scored on the next-bat when Grant Wheeler grounded out to second base.
“Good ballclubs make adjustments and take advantage of what other teams give you. We capitalized on one of their mistakes. Mason gets on a with a walk, and it’s all about putting pressure on the defense with a runner on base,” said Knittel. “That’s what we were able to do.”
The Falcons forced the issue even more with their second run in the fifth — when Wheeler, with two outs, reached on an infield hit.
Adam Crank then cranked up a deep triple to left-center — on an 0-2 Ison offering no less.
Wheeler raced around from first, and the Falcon faithful erupted again at the knowledge of now a 2-0 lead.
“Adam Crank is a ballplayer. All season, a lot of his hits have come with an 0-2 count or two strikes on him. It’s like something sets in and he just goes up there (at the plate) and fights. He is not an easy out and just puts the ball in play,” said Knittel. “He was able to hit a big shot there and drive in that second run.”
Otherwise, Ison was almost as untouchable as Vogelsong-Lewis.
In addition to the three hits, he walked two and struck out five —and retired the Falcons 1-2-3 in innings one, four and six.
When the game resumed after the rain delay and before Wheeler’s infield hit, Ison’s only baserunners allowed were Book’s walk and Vogelsong-Lewis’ triple in the third.
But, as Moore explained, the Pirates were left wondering.
“I liked our approach at the beginning of the game. You knew Elijah was going to get his and throw strikes. But the bad part about it for us is the ‘what ifs’. What if we didn’t run out of the baseline? What if we don’t try that pickoff attempt and throw the ball down the line? Their second run, Crank hit it with an 0-2 count. We’ve been preaching to our guys to make 0-2 pitches pitches they can’t drive. It’s those little things and ‘what ifs’ that really sting,” said the coach. “We had a great week of practice and preparation and we outhit them 4-3, but those little mistakes are the difference between winning and losing the game. Unfortunately, a couple of mistakes probably cost us this game today.”
The Pirates, which ended the season at 22-8 and as district champions for the first time since 2017, bid farewell to eight seniors —including the ace Ison; outfielders Green, Dyer and Mason Montgomery; corner infielders Chase Conley (first) and Horr (third); the other ace Elias Robson; and designated hitter D.J. Horton.
Wheelersburg played a brutal 2021 schedule — which included two Division I opponents (Hilliard Darby and Chillicothe), two 20-plus winners in Division II (Jackson and Waverly), and Minford three times.
“This was one of the most difficult schedules we’ve ever played. At the end of the day, I’m super proud of this team and super proud of these seniors for everything they have given. These eight seniors have given a lot more to this program than what they know. Forever grateful for all that they have done for me and to be able to coach them,” said Moore. “It stings right now, but we’ll be back and hopefully stronger and better.”
They will be chasing the Falcons for sure, which on Saturday will chase down what would be their second regional championship in school history.
Minford, which won the Region 11 title three years ago, meets the winner of Friday’s other semifinal —between Barnesville and Fredericktown.
That contest, which was rained out on Thursday, was reset for Friday evening at Muskingum University.
Knittel said Levi Coriell would be the Falcons’ starting pitcher for the regional final — with his first pitch set for Saturday at high noon in Lancaster.
However, as the coach continued, Minford’s approach won’t change.
“We’re playing good baseball. We’re executing, putting the ball in play, defense is making plays and our pitching…23 wins is something we don’t like to talk about. We just take one game, one pitch, one at-bat, one out at a time,” said Knittel. “We try to do our thing, and stay focused on what we do.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 000 000 0 —0 4 1
Minford 001 010 X —2 3 1
WHS: Ethan Ison 6IP, 2R, 2ER, 3H, 1HB, 2BB, 1 IBB, 5K, 25BF
MHS: Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis 7IP, 0R, 0ER, 4H, 1HB, 1BB, 12K, 27BF
W — Elijah Vogelsong-Lewis; L —Ethan Ison
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved