LANARK – A baseball game that featured some majestic home runs ultimately came down to a sublime relief performance and some trickery on the basepaths.
Eastland made the most of those last two things and was able to pull out a 7-6 victory against Milledgeville on Friday afternoon in a Class 1A regional semifinal.
The Cougars will now travel to Forreston for a regional title match-up on Monday at 4:30 p.m. The Cardinals beat AFC 20-9 in their regional semi.
Eastland (13-4) had defeated Milledgeville (7-9) twice in the regular season, 10-7 and 20-0, and the third time was nearly the charm for the Missiles.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times, I don’t care what sport you play,” Eastland coach Weston Burkholder said. “Milledgeville didn’t roll over. They smacked us in the mouth, but we were able to chip away and come back.”
Trailing 6-5 entering the bottom of the sixth, the winning rally started when Jaxson Sturtevant reached on a throwing error by Milledgeville shortstop Treyton Selman. Sturtevant moved up a base on a sacrifice bunt by Kamden Baber, then to third on a single by Cason Witt. Witt’s single chased Missiles starter Kieren Harris, and Noah Newstrand was brought in to pitch.
The next batter, Carson Heckman, laid down a safety squeeze bunt that plated Sturtevant with the tying run. Owen Rogers followed with an infield single to get Witt to third base.
With Makel Cropper at the plate, Rogers ventured off of first base, hoping to bait Newstrand into a rundown. It worked. Newstrand kept his eye on Witt, but also walked toward Rogers between first and second.
Newstrand then tossed the ball to second baseman Colton Hendrick, who began to chase Rogers back to first base. That gave Witt the green light, and he broke for home.
“I took kind of short shuffles, waiting for him to look away,” Witt said. “Then I saw him turn his whole body and start going back toward first, so I knew it was my time to go.”
Hendrick’s throw was slightly off target, and Witt slid in safely with what turned out to be the game-winning run.
Eastland seized a 4-1 lead on the strength of two huge hits. Kamden Baber hit a two-run double in the third inning, then Kellen Henze socked a two-run homer in the fourth. That advantage was short-lived, however, as the Missiles erupted for five runs in the top of the fifth.
A bloop single by Hendrick drove in the first run, and a potential inning-ending pop-up was dropped by Cropper with two outs, allowing Hendrick to score the second run. That kept the inning alive for Selman, who blasted a two-run homer well into the trees in left field to give the Missiles a 5-4 lead.
The next batter, Newstrand, obliged a bench calling for back-to-back jacks by jacking one over the fence in left to up the Milledgeville lead to 6-4.
When the next batter, Caden VanDyke, doubled to left-center, Coach Burkholder brought in his ace pitcher, Drew Burkholder, to put out the fire.
Drew Burkholder promptly picked VanDyke off of second base. He needed just 33 pitches in 2 1/3 innings of one-hit relief to slam the door on the Missiles.
“As as little kid, you always watch your older brothers, your older classmates, whatever, be in these big moments, and you dream of it too,” Drew Burkholder said. “It wasn’t ideal that I came in so early, but you’ve got to do a job when it’s time to do the job. It feels amazing.”
Henze homered, singled, scored twice and drove in two runs to pace a 12-hit Eastland attack. Witt singled twice and scored twice.
“We had a couple of losses in the middle of the season where we got down early and didn’t answer back real well,” Weston Burkholder said. “I talked about it at that point that we were going to have to come back at some point in the postseason to move on.”
Selman homered, doubled, drove in two runs and scored twice to lead Milledgeville at the plate. Newstrand, like Selman, went deep for the first time this season, while Harris singled twice and scored a run.
“I was really proud of our players today,” Milledgeville coach Austin Caravia said. “They didn’t let the fact that we kept making mistakes in the field slow down our bats. They came out, hit the ball – some big hits by Treyton Selman and Noah Newstrand – I was just proud of all of them.”
1A regional semifinal
Eastland 7, Milledgeville 6
Star of the game: Kellen Henze, Eastland, 2-run HR, 2 R
Key performers: Drew Burkholder, Eastland, 2 1/3 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 5 SO; Treyton Selman, Milledgeville, 2-for-4, HR, 2B, 2 RBI, 2 R
Up next: Regional championship, Eastland at Forreston, 4:30 p.m. Monday
Source: The Daily Chronicle