Meeting with his team following their 5-2 loss to visiting Pelion on a cold evening in Boonetown, Robbie Cash told his North Central baseball squad that the Panthers were “ripe for the picking.”
In the same breath, Cash told his young Knights how proud he was of them and for the effort they put in against a Pelion squad which came into the season as the favorite to take their second consecutive Region 3-AA title.
The Knights, which were coming off a conference-opening 4-1 win over Keenan last Friday, had their chances to improve to 2-0 in league play on this night. The hosts stranded 11 runners on base with 10 of those in scoring position. They also had the winning run at the plate in the bottom of the seventh with one out, only to see Pelion pull off a pitcher-to-home-to-first game-ending double play.
An inning earlier with the PHS lead at 4-1, NC’s Chase Stephens and Alex Tarlton drew back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the sixth. Two failed bunts then turned into strikeouts and a ground out to shortstop followed, turning an inning which had all kinds of possibilities into one which went by the boards.
After an agonizing night, Cash was able to strike a positive tone.
“Not being able to get a bunt down in a couple key situations and not making quality outs hurt us,” he said of the sixth frame. “We had some chances and some guys near the top and middle of the order had chances to produce tonight, but we just didn’t get it done at the plate.
“But we were still in the game in the bottom of the seventh. I was excited about our kids for that because they fought hard and got after it. That’s what we’ve been preaching this year; working hard and getting better every day. We got better today. Now we have to figure how we can take what we did against a team ranked in the top 10 in AA baseball and get better tomorrow.”
Sending out a starting lineup which included an eighth-grader, a freshman catcher and two sophomores, the Knights collected six hits against the Pelion duo of Tyler Poole, who threw more than 100 pitches in five innings of work, and senior Zach Hawkins, who threw two angst-filled innings. The senior duo set 11 NC batters down on strikes, issued six walks while surrendering six hits with NC junior first baseman John Bowers collecting three of those with eighth-grade shortstop Cam Holley cracking a pair of singles.
The Knights started senior lefty Paul Blackwell, author of a three-hitter against Keenan last Friday. His role on Tuesday was to try and steady the hosts’ nerves in the early going in what was scripted for him to be a short night.
Hawkins greeted Blackwell with a leadoff single before scoring on a Dominick Holderness one-out single to center. Poole, who drew a one-out walk before being lifted for courtesy runner Bryson Boltin, scored on a two-out bases-loaded walk to give the guests a quick 2-0 lead.
NC’s string of leaving runners hanging started in the first as two-out singles by Tyler Bowers and John Bowers went for naught as they were standing on third and second, respectively, when Poole got a comebacker to end the threat.
With Blackwell’s night done, Cash went to another senior lefty in Broderick Gaither who started the second and worked into the fourth frame in which the Panthers tacked on two unearned runs to extend their lead to 4-0.
The frame opened with Andrew Kneece being hit by a pitch and taking second on a delayed steal. With one gone, Hawkins sent a fly ball to right which went for a four-base error as he chased Kneece around the bases on the miscue.
Gaither pitched to one more batter before giving way to freshman right-hander Kevin Smith, who would stay on the mound until Tyler Bowers took over with one gone and runners on first and second in the top of the fifth. Bowers got out of the inning unscathed as Cash pieced this one together, pitching-wise, sending four different throwers to the hill.
“Paul (Blackwell) threw a great game on Friday,” Cash said. “I thought we’d send him out there, on three days’ rest, and he’d give us a base tonight so that our guys could get a feel for things. We got him out of there after 25 pitches. Broderick has a loose arm and he can get ready in a hurry so, we sent him out there next. He did a good job.
“We brought Kevin Smith, a right-hander, in there for a change of pace and he did a very good job. Then, we brought in Tyler who went out and did a great job. As long as we stayed in the game, I was going to let Tyler get his work in. He did a great job of getting outs and keeping us in the game.”
The Knights got to Poole for a run in the fifth with Holley sending a two-out single through the box. After advancing on a wild pitch, Holley scored when Tyler Bowers’ rocket of a liner went off the glove of Daniel Hawkins in center, allowing Holley to make it 4-1. John Bowers kept the inning alive with a single and then swiped second to put runners in scoring position only to see Poole get a called third strike to end the threat and his night.
Zach Hawkins struggled with his location and emotions in the sixth, walking Chase Stephens and Alex Tarlton, the first two batters he faced. The hosts aided Hawkins when the next two batters were unable to get a bunt down with each resulting in a strikeout. Hawkins then got out of the pickle with a grounder to third.
Tyler Bowers, meanwhile gave up a run in the top of the seventh as the guests went to a 5-1 advantage with three outs left to be recorded. The runner, Daniel Hawkins, was picked off at second by Bowers’ inside move only to get out of the rundown and dive safely into third base. He would score on a wild pitch.
Cash said that was one of his team’s miscues which will continue to be addressed in practice.
“We had that pickoff play that worked in the seventh that we’ve run all year,” he said while shaking his head. “I’m going to take the blame because we have not worked hard enough on once we get the guy in the rundown, what do we do? I need to coach every play of every game, every situation which may happen and make sure we get better at it. I’ll take the blame for that.
“But we’ll come out here on Thursday with our work pail and we’ll go over that play so that when we pick that guy off at second base we’ll make sure that we make that throw from second to third. There was some confusion about the guy in the way. That’s my fault as a coach. I have to coach every aspect of the game.”
Trailing by four, Holley led off the final frame with a line drive single to left. Tyler Bowers then worked Hawkins for a walk before John Bowers’ infield single loaded the bags with no outs. Holley scored on a passed ball to chop the deficit to 5-2 while Stephen Barrett re-loaded the bases with a no-out walk. But Hawkins composed himself with a strikeout for the first out before inducing a comebacker which led to the 1-2-3 double play to cap the comeback and the evening.
With three regular season and three pre-season tournament games in the well, Cash said he and his coaches have a better idea as to which players need to play where.
“We have 13 players on varsity this year with some others which we may up (from junior varsity) here and there,” he said. “It’s time for us to look at the books and see who deserve to play. We’re going to put guys out there who put the ball in play and who make plays in the field.
“All I’m asking for is for them to make the routine plays in the field and bunt the ball when they are asked to. If you can do that, you’ll play for the North Central Knights this year.”
Blackwell pitches NC past Raiders: With Paul Blackwell throwing a 6.2 inning gem, the North Central baseball team kicked off Region 3-AA play with a 4-1 win over Keenan last Friday night in Columbia.
Blackwell, a senior left-hander, allowed just three hits and the run he gave up was unearned as he earned the praise of his head coach.
“Paul just pitched a great game when we needed to have one like that,” said NC head coach Robbie Cash. “I was real proud of him and his effort.”
Blackwell was relieved in the seventh by Tyler Bowers who earned the save. Bowers also went 3-for-4 at the plate while driving in three Knight runners.
“This was a good way to open the region season,” Cash said. “This should give us some confidence as we head into the meat of our schedule.”