WHEELERSBURG — Wheelersburg coach Derek Moore was perhaps prophetic during Wednesday’s final at-bat.
His sophomore shortstop, Connor Estep, had just made a low throw on a ground ball hit to him —resulting in the Pirates’ second error, and with their 1-0 lead over visiting Valley hanging by a precious thread.
Moore made sure to quickly calm Estep’s nerves, and offered him some timely encouragement.
“I told him he was going to make a play to win the ballgame,” said Moore. “Baseball is a weird game. When you’re down or maybe some bad luck has found you, then the next ball is going to find you. I told him he was going to have a chance to win a game. Connor came up big, made the play, threw the ball across the diamond, and made the final out for us.”
Two batters later, Estep indeed made that coveted final out —cleanly fielding a ground ball and firing to first base.
At that moment, ace pitcher Hunter Thomas made an epic glove toss that would have challenged any shot put or discus throw, Moore bear-hugged Thomas not far from the mound and home plate, and the Pirates’ postgame party of clinching at least a share of a hard-fought Southern Ohio Conference Division II baseball championship was officially underway.
In fact, there was no doubting Thomas on Wednesday, as he pitched the game of his young life against the Indians —allowing only two first-inning singles followed by a second-inning walk to Hunter Edwards, as Wheelersburg won 1-0 in only 65 full minutes and with an unearned fourth-frame run.
The Pirates, whose only league loss was at Valley 3-2 three weeks ago in an equally-quality contest, gained its measure of revenge —and broke the 13-1 tie of records atop the SOC II.
Wheelersburg raised its overall tally to 15-5 (14-1 SOC II), as the Indians fell to 14-2 (13-2 SOC II) —but the Pirates post at least a share of the divisional crown, which is their second under Moore and first since they split with Minford in 2019.
Before Minford won it four years back, the Pirates had won eight consecutive (2010 thru 2017) —as there was no 2020 campaign caused by the coronavirus threat.
The Falcons had captured three straight conference championships, and was 12-3 in the league following Wednesday’s win over West.
And, if Wheelersburg is to win the SOC II outright —and with only two seniors amid a sophomore-laden roster —the Pirates must travel to the Falcons’ Nest on Friday night, and defeat the Falcons for the season sweep.
First pitch is set for 7 p.m.
However, according to Moore and senior catcher Cooper McKenzie, a championship is a championship no matter how it is sliced —and for this particular band of young Pirates, it’s as sweet as they say.
The victory also punctuated a special Senior Day — for four-year Pirates McKenzie and Thomas.
“We had our first workout for the year on Nov. 30, and goal number one was to win the SOC II. To do this and achieve it, is awesome,” said the coach. “To see these two seniors, a bunch of sophomores and one junior (Lane Hutchinson) grow up in front of us, it’s pretty special to see.”
“It means everything,” said McKenzie. “We’ve only won the SOC once in my four years here, and that’s always our number-one goal. To do it on Senior Night, our last regular-season game on our home field, it’s kind of bittersweet but it means everything and it’s very special. I’m glad it came out this way.”
McKenzie, the prime three-hole hitter, scored the Pirates’ only run —getting on base via back-to-back Indian errors and an unsuccessful fielder’s choice.
McKenzie led off the fourth inning by hitting a ground ball to third base, as Isaac Bockway was the next Pirate up —as the Indians’ force play attempt to get McKenzie out at second went awry.
McKenzie went sliding headfirst into third, then crossed on the next at-bat —an RBI infield single by Jake Darling.
Moore knew basehits off Valley ace pitcher George Arnett would be at a higher premium than cheap gasoline prices, but the Pirates’ plan for success was simply to put the ball in play.
In fact, Wheelersburg’s only other hits were an Estep one-out single in the first, a Landon Hutchinson leadoff single on a bunt in the fourth, and finally a McKenzie leadoff single to center in the sixth.
Arnett only struck out three of the 25 Pirates he faced —thus meaning, aside from him hitting Cole Estep with a pitch in the sixth, Valley’s defense behind him did have to make plays.
Fortunately for Wheelersburg, it worked out in the fourth with the Indians’ only errors.
Otherwise, Arnett more than pitched well enough to win —stranding four Pirates and retiring Wheelersburg 1-2-3 in innings two and five.
“The last time we played Valley and faced (George) Arnett, we didn’t execute the best we could and we had a lot of flyball outs and didn’t put pressure on them. Today, we only had four hits, but we still put pressure on them and did what we could do on the bases to do some good things. It was in our favor and good things happened,” said Moore. “George (Arnett) pitched his tail off for them, but we found a way to do some good things. That’s a tough-luck loss for George, who is a strike thrower has been lights out all year for them. I told our guys that he is going to throw all his pitches for strikes and is not going to walk anybody. We had to be able to put pressure on them and hit the ball hard. That fourth inning, we hit the ball hard, used a little bit of our speed, and took advantage of a couple bad throws.”
But bad throws were not in the offing for the right-handed Thomas, who faced five Indians in the initial at-bat —but no more than four in any at-bat after.
Tate Queen and Chris Queen singled for Valley back-to-back in the first with two away, but Thomas escaped the jam with the first of his five strikeouts.
Edwards walked with one out in the second — and Thomas induced a 6-4 fielder’s choice — but from there, he retired the next dozen Indians, and 14 out of a staggering 15.
Valley’s only baserunners beyond the second stanza reached on errors —Tate Queen in the sixth and Jace Copley in the last.
In the sixth, Thomas induced Chris Queen into an inning-ending groundout at third, followed by Copley being stranded in the seventh —with Thomas’ final strikeout and Estep’s game-ending defensive assist.
“You have to give Hunter a lot of credit. To be a senior on Senior Night, your emotions are already high. But they got the best of Hunter last time, and I think they are his only loss of the year. So he came back tonight and it’s 100-percent his best game pitched,” said Moore. “He showed today, like his last three starts, that’s ace Hunter Thomas. The bright lights were on him today with an SOC II title on the line, but he came in and he delivered. He’s not going to light up the radar gun, but he’s going to throw strikes and he’s going to have tempo and make his defense play behind him. That’s exactly what we did.”
McKenzie has caught Thomas for two years, and liked what he saw leading up to Wednesday’s quick and efficient outing.
“He (Thomas) threw a short bullpen yesterday (Tuesday), but he said he felt good. I talked to him today (Wednesday) at school, and he said he felt really good and was ready to go show them,” revealed McKenzie. “Ever since we were young, we’ve always had good chemistry as a battery. Once he is on the mound, we always have full confidence in him. To finish in an hour and five minutes…”
From Valley’s vantage point, and that of head coach Nolan Crabtree, the Indians’ appearances at the plate were poor.
Their only other league loss was 2-1 at Minford —in that epic 14-inning affair, which was completed over a two-day span.
“We didn’t have good fighting at-bats. We hit too many balls in the air, we didn’t have a good approach. Wheelersburg did what they were supposed to do, and Thomas threw a great game for them and George (Arnett) did a great job for us as their run was unearned, but you have to score to win. Our two losses in the league fall back to just not doing our jobs at the plate,” said Crabtree. “We gave up the unearned run in the fourth, but this loss falls squarely on our at-bats. If you can’t get guys on, you can’t execute and make things happen. We have an ERA as a team of 1.1. George pitches absolutely well enough to win, but we’re hitting way too many easy pop-outs and fly balls right now. Got adjustments that need to be made. Tonight was a rough performance at the plate, and that part is disappointing.”
The Indians, in their final SOC II tilt on Thursday, traveled to Waverly —which they defeated 1-0 in an eight-inning epic on April 15 on The Reservation.
Valley needed another victory in that one, AND needs an assist from the Falcons against the Pirates —in order to share the SOC II championship with Wheelersburg.
And, although the Pirates pursue still an outright title, Wednesday’s win was indeed rewarding for this new-look Burg bunch.
“Hunter (Thomas) and Cooper (McKenzie) going into the year, after a senior-heavy group last year, were on the fence of how they could become leaders. As this year has gone on, all of our sophomores have matured and grown up, those two have grown up even more to become better seniors and better leaders,” said Moore. “We’re going to enjoy this one, but we don’t like to share anything with anybody, no matter what sport it is. We have a chance to win an outright title on Friday night at Minford, so that’s our plan and we’re going for that.”
* * *
Valley 000 000 0 — 0 2 2
Wheelersburg 000 100 X —1 4 2
VHS: George Arnett 6IP, 1R, 0R, 4H, 1HB, 0BB, 3K, 25BF
WHS: Hunter Thomas 7IP, 0R, 0ER, 2H, 0HB, 1BB, 5K, 26BF
W — Hunter Thomas; L — George Arnett
Valley hitting: Tate Queen S; Chris Queen S; Hunter Edwards BB
Wheelersburg hitting: Connor Estep S; Cooper McKenzie RS S; Jake Darling RBI S; Cole Estep HBP; Hunter Thomas SAC bunt
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