LUCASVILLE — It’s lonely being at the top sometimes, but right now, indeed the Valley Indians are enjoying their view —in more ways than one —and actually wouldn’t want it any other way.
That’s because, by Wednesday evening, the Indians —already the top-ranked team in the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association Division IV statewide poll and the newly-minted Prep Baseball Report Ohio’s Division IV Team of the Week —are alone and atop another set of rankings.
And, these are the ones actually played on the diamond on not on paper, as the Indians are the sole owners of the first-place positioning in the rugged Southern Ohio Conference Division II.
That’s right, the undefeated Indians continued their perfect start to 2022 —thanks to an all-important 3-2 triumph over visiting Wheelersburg on Wednesday at Valley’s “Reservation”.
For the Indians, despite being outhit 7-5, they scratched out three runs of the non-traditional variety — aided by an errant Pirate pickoff throw in the first, followed by Pirate pitcher Hunter Thomas walking three, hitting his counterpart George Arnett with a pitch, and catcher Jace Copley dropping in a blooper between a Bermuda Triangle of Wheelersburg defenders.
The final two Valley runs, which were both earned off Thomas, made it 3-1 through the fourth inning —as the standout junior ace Arnett and the Indians’ defense did the rest, making the plays in the field behind him.
That included the game’s final at-bat, when Wheelersburg trailed 3-2 —but had runners on first and second with two outs.
That’s when Cooper McKenzie, the Pirates’ primary hitter in the three-hole spot and already 2-of-3 with an RBI, hit a fly ball to right centerfield —in which both centerfielder Carter Nickel and rightfielder Hunter Edwards gave good running chase.
The two Indian outfielders appeared to be on a collision course in right center, but communication and call-offs aside, Edwards made the catch —and the Indians preserved the 3-2 win.
The snag also saved Valley’s perfect record —7-0 both overall and in the SOC II.
The Pirates, conversely, fell to an even 4-4 (4-1 SOC II) —but Wednesday was their first league loss through five games.
Had McKenzie’s seventh-stanza hit dropped, it’s likely the Pirates would have taken a 4-3 lead.
But the experience of Arnett on the mound, and Nickel and Edwards in the outfield, turned a potentially disastrous — and even dangerous — situation for the Indians into the final out.
And, a serious SOC II ‘W’.
“With Hunter and Carter out there, that’s two experienced guys, and I would like a little more communication on that, but I guess it wasn’t as dangerous as what it looked or could have been. George made the pitch, (Cooper) McKenzie is their best hitter , and I’m sure that’s who Coach Moore wanted up in that spot. But I told George just before he faced him (McKenzie) to ‘just trust your stuff, don’t give into him and you attack with our plan.’ We’ll see what happens,” said Valley coach Nolan Crabtree. “Let our defense make a play.”
McKenzie had come through in the third inning with a one-out RBI-single to center, crossing Creed Warren — who reached on an infield hit on a bunt — for the 1-1 tie.
Indeed, Wheelersburg coach Derek Moore got the guy he wanted at bat with Wheelersburg’s situation —following a one-out walk to Landon Hutchinson and a two-out single to center by Connor Estep.
But Arnett, as he did most of the rain-and-sun mixed afternoon, got the Pirates popping up on pitches —as the Indians’ infielders and outfielders were busy shagging fly-ball outs.
“We wanted Cooper up there in that situation. He’s been our guy all year so far, and he’s going to continue being our guy,” said Moore. “Cooper was upset with himself, but he is going to get plenty more chances like that. Let that one maybe fuel the fire a little bit. You have to give George (Arnett) a lot of credit. He’s a veteran guy, thrown in a lot of big games for them, and we knew he was going to be crafty. I think if you ask him, he doesn’t have overpowering stuff or blows it by you, but he is going to command that curveball, slider and change-up. He commands his off-speed pitch, fills up the zone, and you’re not going to get many free bases at all off him. Hitting a lot of lazy fly balls off him isn’t going to help you very much in a game like this, especially when his defense makes plays like they did.”
Arnett is arguably the top pitcher in the entire SOC II —as he faced 30 Pirates while scattering seven hits, and hitting Cole Estep with a pitch in the sixth.
He struck out five in the complete-game performance, facing four Wheelersburg batters in innings one, two, five and six —sandwiched around retiring the Pirates 1-2-3 in the fourth.
Arnett stranded seven Pirates, including Connor Estep at third and McKenzie at second in the fourth.
Wheelersburg’s only other run was in the fifth —when Hutchinson doubled to left center, advanced to third on a wild pitch, and scored on an Estep sacrifice fly.
McKenzie was 2-for-4 followed by Estep at 2-for-3 —as they both singled in the opening inning, but a baserunning mistake resulted in the Indians catching Estep in a rundown for the second out.
“We went about attacking their hitters a little differently tonight than what we had tried the last couple of games. We had a good plan, and George executed. He is a big-game pitcher and a great player,” said Crabtree. “He made the pitches that he wanted to, he didn’t give into them, and the defense made plays.”
While Arnett earned the win, it was tough-luck day for Thomas — who started and pitched the first four innings for the second consecutive Pirate game.
While Wheelersburg last played on Friday before visiting Valley, and the Indians appeared on Tuesday at VA Memorial Stadium in an SOC II makeup matchup against Oak Hill, the Pirates —perhaps —didn’t quite have their desired rhythm, as Thomas gave up first-inning singles to Chase Morrow and Chris Queen.
Morrow moved up on a wild pitch —and scored when Thomas’ two-out pickoff throw went awry.
“The first inning, we had some stuff going, got a guy behind 0-2, it’s like let’s just put something on and see what happens here. A little drizzle, a wet ball, and it kind of worked out for us,” said Crabtree. “That’s just playing the game.”
So too is being patient at the plate, which Valley was in the fourth.
With one out, Landon Jones, Hunter Edwards and Colt Buckle all drew one-out walks —sandwiched around Copley’s second hit, which dropped in between three Pirates in shallow right field.
On the walk to Buckle, J.R. Holbrook —pinch-running for Jones —crossed, followed by Thomas hitting Arnett with a pitch two batters later and with two outs.
Thomas, like Arnett and Pirate two-inning reliever Jake Darling, all struck out five —but the fourth-frame free passes certainly impacted the Indians positively, and the Pirates negatively.
“That one inning got away from Hunter, but he pitched well enough to win. And we were happy to see Jake Darling come in and pitch lights out in his two innings,” said Moore. “You and I know when you play baseball, it’s all about rhythm, and getting to play a lot in a lot of days. When it’s hit and miss, you just never know. Developing a rhythm in this game is important.”
Of Valley’s five hits —Queen’s, Copley’s in the second and Edwards’ in the sixth off Darling —were all infield singles.
“I won’t say we had great results hitting the ball, but we had good at-bats,” noted Crabtree. “We got deep into counts, we fouled off a lot of pitches, and forced them to come to us. We didn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches in those spots.”
Moore believed, including the first-inning baserunning mistake, “there was a lot of things that we gave them today”.
“We gave them that out, their first run with the pickoff throw, and their two fourth-inning runs they had one little Texas League hit and the rest were three walks and one hit by pitch. That’s the thing,” said the coach. “With an experienced team like Valley, you can’t gift them runs. When we look back, you could say we gifted them all three. But that’s what good teams do. You give them runs, they are going to find ways to make you pay. All the credit to Valley. They did a really good job.”
So much so, in fact, that the Indians are now all alone atop the SOC II—as their Friday meeting with Waverly will mark the end of their first-half league rotation.
Wheelersburg, meanwhile, will host three-time defending division champion Minford on Friday — but the Falcons already have two league losses.
“We’re going to come battle. You just have to do that every night in this league. I wouldn’t expect anything else,” said Crabtree. “Have we put ourselves in a good position first time through the league? Absolutely we have. But it’s a long way from over, and we have a lot of work to do still. I just want us to slowly get better, keep improving every time out and play hard and play together and just do what we’re asked to do.”
* * *
Wheelersburg 001 010 0 — 2 7 1
Valley 100 200 X — 3 5 1
WHS: Hunter Thomas 4IP, 3R, 2ER, 4H, 1HB, 3BB, 5K, 20BF; Jake Darling 2IP, 0R, 0ER, 1H, 0HB, 0BB, 5K, 7BF
VHS: George Arnett 7IP, 2R, 1ER, 7H, 1HB, 1BB, 5K, 30BF
W — George Arnett ; L — Hunter Thomas
Wheelersburg hitting: Creed Warren 1-4 RS; Connor Estep 2-3 RBI sac fly; Cooper McKenzie 2-4 RBI; Cole Estep HBP; Jake Darling 1-3; Landon Hutchinson 1-2 D RS BB
Valley hitting: George Arnett HBP RBI; Chase Morrow 1-3 RS SB; Chris Queen 1-3; Landon Jones BB; Jace Copley 2-3 RS; Hunter Edwards 1-1 BB SB; Colt Buckle BB RBI; J.R. Holbrook RS
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved